The Bears are a great rebounding team. They rank 31st in NCAA women’s basketball in rebound margin, boasting an average of nine rebounds a game over their opponents — just shy of fifth-ranked Stanford, which averages 9.1. But if Cal wants to improve and grow as the season unfolds, it will need to rebound not just on the court, but in spirit and mentality as well.
It’s been a tough go for the Bears’ 2019-20 campaign. They lost their head coach Lindsay Gottlieb after she moved on to become an assistant coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. They lost four of their starting five from last year to graduation and the transfer portal. They started this season with consecutive losses to Harvard and UConn.
But they rebounded. And they’ll need to do it again.
After losing a heartbreaking 63-61 game against No. 13 Kentucky that snapped their seven-game winning streak, the Bears will look to start fresh in their matchup against Grand Canyon University at home on Sunday night. This matchup will conclude both the Antelopes’ and the Bears’ nonconference seasons, and both teams will be vying to finish 2019 with a victory.
GCU is led by senior Da’jah Daniel, who averages 12.6 points and a WAC-best 9.6 rebounds a game. She is assisted by point guard Jada Holland, who makes her return to the East Bay after attending Bishop O’ Dowd High School in Oakland. Defying her freshman status, Holland has played like a seasoned veteran, running the offense with 5.7 assists per game along with her 11.5 points per game.
Opposite Holland is another freshman guard, Tavia Rowell. The 5’10” Canadian struggled earlier this season, shooting an abysmal 15% in a four-game stretch. But just as the Lopes have turned their season around with three straight victories against UNLV, UC Santa Barbara and Whittier, so has Rowell improved her game — averaging 10.3 points per game on a 45% clip.
On the other side of the court, Cal’s young squad will pose its own problems for GCU. Senior Jaelyn Brown leads the charge for the Bears, scoring a team high 15.5 points per game — sixth-best in the Pac-12. Brown was named espnW’s player of the week in November after scoring 30 points in the Bears upset against a then-No. 20 Arkansas.
Brown is not the only standout player on offense, however, as freshman Leilani McIntosh has been turning heads with her ability to facilitate Cal’s attack. McIntosh averages 4.4 dimes a game, making her a top 10 passer in the conference.
Despite impressive performances from some standouts, the Bears on a whole have struggled. Cal’s defense has allowed 62.1 points per game, second-worst in the Pac-12. Interior defense has been the bane of the Bears’ existence, as opponents are shooting nearly 40% inside compared to 27.5% from outside the arc.
While starting four of the same five players for all ten games of the season, Cal has struggled to lock down the five position, with senior centers CJ West and Chen Yue exchanging starts and minutes. Both players will have to be on their A-game defensively to match GCU’s Daniel and her offensive and rebounding prowess.
If there is one clear advantage for the Lopes, it’s their ability to shoot the three ball. The Lopes have three players that shoot at least 40% from deep, while only the Bears’ Jaelyn Brown shoots at a 40% or higher clip (minimum 3 attempts). Cal’s defense is one of the best in limiting outside shots, and the game could very well come down to what budges first — the Bears’ impenetrable perimeter defense or the Lopes’ three-point barrage.
Whether the game comes down to a downtown dogfight or a short range skirmish, the Bears should have the edge. They have proven they can compete among the NCAA’s top teams in their games against Arkansas and Kentucky, and will need this final nonconference victory they before facing four top-five teams in January’s Pac-12 play. The Lopes will not go easy into the good night, having won three straight and looking to add a fourth before they take on the rest of the WAC.
Ultimately, the question comes down to this: Can the Bears rebound?
Cal plays Grand Canyon University on Sunday at Haas Pavilion.