After a surprisingly strong start to the season, including an 8-3 nonconference record, the Bears are set to face the gauntlet that is the Pac-12 conference in the new year. That journey begins Friday, when the 9-3 Washington Huskies come to town.
While this match marks the beginning of conference play for Cal, the Huskies began their conference slate Sunday against the Washington State Cougars. They defeated their in-state rival 65-56 in Pullman and extended their streak of undefeated road games to 5-0. They were led by senior Amber Melgoza, who scored a game high 17 points.
The experienced Melgoza is the centerpiece of the Huskies offense and is leading the team in scoring with an average of 13.5 points per game. Sophomore Haley Van Dyke and junior Missy Peterson complete a trio of talent that has been carrying Washington all season, averaging 10 and 9.5 points per game, respectively.
Perhaps the hallmark of this team though is its stout defense, as its disruptiveness on that end of the floor has led to a successful start to its season. This active defense appeared once again against the Cougars on Sunday, as it held its opponents under 60 points for the eighth time this season and locked down the Cougars star Borislava Hristova (who averages 18.5 ppg) to just ten points.
The Huskies also lead the Pac-12 in both turnovers forced (23.1 per game) and steals (12.8 per game). Cal will need to be at its best if it hopes to tackle the tough Husky defense.
The Bears are coming off a convincing 72-53 win over the Grand Canyon Antelopes, but they still have some resolutions for the new year. The Pac-12 is arguably the best conference in women’s college basketball, featuring three teams ranked in the top five and some of the best players in the country. This young Cal team has exceeded expectations in nonconference play, but several aspects of its game will need to be elevated to the next level if it hopes to compete in the loaded Pac-12. Cal head coach Charmin Smith highlighted several issues after the Grand Canyon game that the Bears need to focus on to raise their game.
“We started off shooting the ball really well, so pretty excited that we’re saving that for Pac-12 play right now” Smith joked. “I think our on-ball defense is going to have to step up to another level. I thought we gave these guards some looks that, I’m just thinking it my head that Melgoza (on the Huskies) and (Chanelle) Molina and Bobby (Borislava Hristova), there’s some guards coming that we’re going to have to get into stance and really contain, so those are the things that we’re going to have to pick up for that first weekend in Pac-12 play for sure.”
If the Bears can improve upon their three point shooting and on-ball defense, then they should be able to hang with anyone in the conference. This matchup against the Huskies is a great first test for the Bears and should provide some insight into where they stand in a competitive Pac-12.
Cal won both its meetings with Washington last season and has won its last five against the Huskies. Washington leads the all-time series against the Bears, winning 46 out of 73 matchups.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. Friday in Haas Pavilion.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].