After the roller coaster freefall of the Cal women’s basketball’s season finally ended last weekend with the Bears’ first conference victory, the ride up was short-lived as Cal fell again on Friday night to USC.
It was a tale of two halves, as the Bears held a lead throughout the first half, but lost it early in the third quarter and never regained it.
“(It was a) frustrating game,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith. “I think we did some things well, but unfortunately we struggled to get stops and struggled to take care of the ball, which has been an issue for us the past few games — and USC did enough to pull away.”
The Bears jumped out to an early lead, and maintained the advantage for the entire first quarter. Senior leader Jaelyn Brown set the tone, scoring nine points on 3-4 from beyond the arc. Four points each from Alaysia Styles and Sara Anastasieska helped Cal finish the first quarter with a 17-13 lead.
Midway through the second quarter, the Bears pushed their lead up to seven. Cal’s scoring trio of Brown, Styles and Anastasieska added 13 of Cal’s 14 in the quarter, as they continued to carry the load offensively. Brown displayed her ability to score in different ways, flowing from a three-point heavy first quarter to going 6-6 from the line.
But the bad news for the Bears began in the second quarter, as their lack of interior size started to show. Trojan Angel Jackson, a 6’5” freshman center who was previously averaging 6.8 points and 5 rebounds per game, added 7 points and 6 rebounds in the second quarter alone.
Still, the Bears managed to keep the lead, but a big three-pointer from the Trojans with a minute left cut the lead to one heading into halftime. The tide was starting to turn, and a few minutes into the third, the Trojans took the advantage. After shooting 40% from the field in the first half, USC started to gain a rhythm and shot 62.5% in the third.
In the final quarter, the Bears trimmed their deficit to 2, but a 7-0 run from the Trojans gave them a nine-point lead with three minutes remaining. In the end, USC prevailed 75-67.
Smith attributed those runs from USC to Cal’s struggles with turnovers and ball control.
“I think it’s a lot easier for people to score when you’re giving them the ball,” Smith said. “I think when we turn it over, they get some of those run-out layups, they get their posts in transition, (and) that’s really challenging.”
A mix of scoring outliers also made a difference — a lack of output from Cal’s freshman, along with outsized performances from USC’s fourth and sixth leading scorers. Leilani McIntosh, Jazlen Green, Cailyn Crocker and Evelien Lutje Schipholt combined for just 11 points after demonstrating recent growth; Trojans Aliyah Jeune and Jackson combined for 37 points after averaging 17 per game coming in.
Up next for the Bears is No. 10 UCLA on Sunday, a team that is coming off of a 79-69 win against No. 6 Stanford on Friday night. After a bad loss to Arizona last week, the Bruins demonstrated that they deserve their ranking, knocking off a Stanford squad that was previously 9-1 in conference play.
UCLA is led by junior forward Michaela Onyenwere, an All Pac-12 player last season who is following up her superstar sophomore campaign with another historical season. She’s increased her scoring from 18.3 to 19.6 points per game, while improving her field goal efficiency to 50%.
At 6’0” with the size, strength and skills to play anywhere from 1 through 4, Onyenwere creates mismatches wherever she plays. She has also been ultra-reliable, failing to hit double-digit scoring just three times this season. Last season, she torched the Bears for 29 and 23 points, and is coming off of a 29-point game against Stanford.
Also of note for the Bruins is freshman guard Charisma Osborne, who has taken a big leap in conference play, putting up 11.9 points per game, including a 20-point game against USC. Osborne was a five-star recruit who was ranked 10th in the country, according to Prospects Nation.
It’ll be an uphill battle on Sunday for Cal, as the deep roster of big guards behind Onyenwere and Osborne will create matchup problems. To come out with a win, the Bears will need to play an almost impossible game of whack-a-mole — stop Onyenwere, but also make sure none of the other guards with double-digit scoring potential get the opportunity to do so.