Bears face tough road stretch against No.8 Beavers, No. 6 Ducks

Ronnie Ghose/Staff

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It’s one thing to walk into a lion’s den prepared to do battle. It’s another to walk in covered in blood, reeking of fear and holding a sign that says “Please Eat Me.”

Cal women’s basketball is on the road Jan. 17-19 as it takes on No. 8 Oregon State and No. 6 Oregon in a series of matchups that, on paper, look like a predator-prey nature documentary. Cal has lost four straight, including a 73-40 blowout loss to Stanford in which the blue and gold scored a miserable 18 points in the first three quarters.

Unfortunately for the Bears, there is no rest for the weary as their trip to the Beaver State will be their most formidable challenge yet.

Oregon State (15-1) is powered by Mikayla Pivec, who leads the team with 15.3 points per game. Pivec, a 5’10” point guard, is astonishingly the Pac-12’s best board woman, as she pulls down more than 10 rebounds per game. In addition to her work on the glass, the all-conference senior averages 5.4 assists and 1.4 steals per contest, making her a threat on both sides of the ball.

Anchoring the Beavers’ conference-best defense are forwards Taylor Jones and Kennedy Brown, who are first and second in the Pac-12 in blocks. Opponents are shooting a miserable 33% from the field against Oregon State, a mark that will send a shiver down the spine of a Cal offense that has struggled to keep pace.

If there is one bright spot for the Bears, it’s that the Beavers finally appeared mortal after their first loss of the season against Arizona State. The Sun Devils won on the back of an impressive defensive performance that limited the then-No. 3 ranked team in the country to only 47 points on a 31% clip. If this game holds the keys to success against Oregon State, then Cal will need to replicate the defensive ferocity and clutch shooting that bolstered Arizona State to victory.

The second matchup of the blue and gold’s northern expedition is against No. 6 Oregon — a powerhouse and championship contender in its own right. The Ducks kick off their own home stand with a Thursday matchup against No. 3 Stanford, and will follow it up with a game against Cal on Sunday. The Ducks (13-2) are arguably the best team in the nation at putting the ball in the hoop, averaging 86.5 points per game. To put their elite offensive prowess into context, the next-highest scoring team in the Pac-12 is Stanford, with 78.5 points per game.

The engine powering Oregon’s offense is senior duo Ruthy Hebard and Sabrina Ionescu, who are the fourth and fifth-highest scorers in the Pac-12. Hebard, a 6’4” forward, dominates inside the arc, shooting 68.7% from the field. Ionescu, in contrast, draws defenses’ attention to the perimeter and her ability to see the whole court makes her the nation’s most dangerous facilitator, as her 8.6 assists per game average leads all players in the NCAA.

Whether it is the monstrous Beaver defense or the Ducks’ offensive onslaught, the Bears will have their hands full and then some on their upcoming road trip. But for all of their recent struggles, the Bears shouldn’t be counted out.

The Bears, although they looked pitiful in their first game of their home and home series against Stanford, demonstrated that the team would not go quietly into the good night with an improved performance in their return to Haas Pavilion. Senior Jaelyn Brown, the only member of the blue and gold to average double-digit scoring, has had a fantastic season so far — and despite a poor performance against the Cardinal, will likely see a resurgence on the road. Freshman Leilani McIntosh has grown more comfortable with distributing the ball and facilitating the offense, and this upcoming series away from home will provide valuable experience for a young floor general.

Ultimately, however, Cal hasn’t played anywhere near the level of its upcoming opponents. Forward CJ West has all but disappeared for the Bears, scoring 3 points and grabbing 6 rebounds in the team’s last two outings. Likewise, freshman Jazlen Green has struggled to put up points from the bench, averaging 6 points per game in her last three contests — a far cry from her earlier performances this season. But the blame does not just lie on these individuals. Cal as a whole is mediocre across the board, ranking in the middle of the conference in points scored, points against, rebounds, assists and other important statistical categories. That level of play, while acceptable in other conferences, stands no chance in the Pac-12 where three teams are in the top 10. It will take improved performances top to bottom to elevate the blue and gold to victory in either of their upcoming games.

The Bears are walking into the lion’s den, but the question is — will they be prey or predator?

Cal will face Oregon State on Friday at Gill Coliseum in Corvallis, Oregon. The Bears will then matchup against Oregon on Sunday at the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.