Cal women’s basketball has been unstoppable as of late, but its seven-game win streak and undefeated home record could come to an end this weekend, as the No.14 Kentucky Wildcats come to town, led by the transcendent Rhyne Howard.
The Wildcats are among college basketball’s most elite programs, but with expectations low and momentum on their side, the Bears have a prime opportunity to prove that they can keep up with the best. Even if the Bears aren’t able to pull off the upset, this tough test will provide invaluable experience for a young Cal team, as its nonconference schedule winds down.
Kentucky has been dominant this season, putting up 10-straight wins to start the season before finally taking its first loss Sunday in a powerhouse matchup against No. 6 Louisville. Despite the loss, the Wildcats’ play against the Cardinals was impressive in and of itself. Louisville was pushed to its limits in the win, narrowly escaping a loss after a potential game-winning 3-pointer by Howard fell short, allowing the Cardinals to sneak away with a 67-66 victory.
After a heartbreaking loss that snapped their undefeated record, the Wildcats will be eager to get back into the win column in their last nonconference game of the season. 6’2” guard Howard has been dominant all season, pacing the Wildcats with a team-high 20.2 ppg and 5.5 rpg, while knocking down an astounding 31 3-pointers (for reference, Cal’s leading 3-point shooter, Sara Anastasieska, has only hit 13).
Even scarier is that Howard is only a sophomore. She was named unanimous national Freshman of the Year last season after one of the best rookie seasons in college basketball history, leading the Wildcats in points (16.4 ppg) and rebounds (6.6 rpg). If that isn’t impressive enough, she also plays internationally for USA Basketball and was named tournament MVP after leading the U18 National Team to gold. The towering guard has continued to improve and will likely be the best player the Bears will face this season.
Cal will need to be at its very best to shut Howard down, but luckily the Bears have some players of their own who they believe can hang with one of the nation’s best.
It all starts with senior Jaelyn Brown, the lone returning starter from last season’s squad who has had an important leadership role on this season’s team.
Brown leads Cal in scoring with 15.2 ppg and is the team’s second-highest rebounder, averaging 6.8 per game. Despite a slow start, she has come into her own as of late, putting up double figures in six of Cal’s last seven games.
“She really struggled those first two games; she was trying to find her way. Our offense isn’t really geared toward creating shots for her. Or anyone else, really. But she got it going in San Diego and then in Arkansas,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith. “I’ve told her not to focus on scoring, to worry about something else, and it will come. I asked her to take on some tough defensive assignments, and she was so locked on that, that her offense just came. And when she is feeling it, it’s tough to slow her down.”
Coming off of a close 69-65 victory over the Santa Clara Broncos, the Bears will need to be better if they hope to hang with the Wildcats. The blue and gold had a disastrous shooting night, going 0-10 from three, and another performance such as that could prove fatal against a team as good as Kentucky.
With Pac-12 play looming right around the corner, a matchup with Kentucky will be a great opportunity to face a team with a talent level on par with some of the Pac-12’s most elite squads. The Bears will also learn how to match up against a star in Howard, something they’ll need to be ready for when they face players such as Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu in conference play.
This game marks only the second time Cal has played Kentucky, with their last matchup ending in a 62-52 victory for the Bears. The game tips off 4 p.m. Saturday at Haas Pavilion.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].