Bears start season slow with disappointing nonconference losses

Cal Women's Basketball
Sam Albillo/File

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It’s often said that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and, unfortunately for Cal women’s basketball, fans’ first looks at the retooled roster after an eight-month hiatus did not go as planned. The Bears dropped their first two nonconference games to open the season, with demoralizing losses at home to San Jose State and CSU Bakersfield.

The new-look Cal team opened the year Wednesday night in a fanless Haas Pavilion and immediately started the season off on the wrong foot, falling 56-48 to a mid-major SJSU team that hadn’t beaten a Pac-12 opponent in more than a decade. Coincidentally, that victory had also been an upset in Berkeley over the then-No. 22 Bears back in 2009.

Several key issues plagued Cal in the season-opening loss. SJSU dominated the Bears in offensive rebounds, leading Cal 21-13 on the offensive glass.

“Rebounding was really the thing,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith. “They killed us on the (offensive) boards and that was really challenging for us to come back from.”

Costly turnovers also spelled doom for the Bears on Wednesday evening. An aggressive SJSU defense forced 23 turnovers, including 13 steals, while Cal forced only eight turnovers and three steals of its own.

The Bears had scoring struggles, with no player putting up more than 10 points. Furthermore, the young team wilted down the stretch after leading at the conclusion of the first two quarters, being outscored 37-25 in the second half. The Spartans were led by a dominant performance from senior forward Tyra Whitehead, who put up 12 points, 10 rebounds and five steals.

Despite SJSU escaping with a win, there were some bright spots for the Bears. Cal played stifling defense, holding SJSU to 56 points and 22-of-76 shooting. Furthermore, the Bears offered a balanced offensive attack, with the trio of Leilani McIntosh, Evelien Lutje Schipholt and Dalayah Daniels each dropping 10 points. This balanced offense is a welcome change from last year’s team, which too often relied on Jaelyn Brown to single-handedly carry the scoring load. Still, these small victories weren’t enough for the Bears to come away with a win.

On Sunday, the story was more of the same, as the Bears dropped to 0-2 with a 60-52 loss to CSU Bakersfield. Cal had its moments, but costly mistakes led to another underwhelming defeat at the hands of a mid-major opponent. The Bears cut down on giving up rebounds and turnovers, but scoring troubles were what ultimately sealed Cal’s fate.

Cal struggled to create offense all afternoon long and finished the game shooting a dreadful 2 of 14 from three and tallying only five assists. The Bears’ shooting woes culminated in a disappointing 16-of-53 performance from the field. In contrast, the Roadrunners moved the ball with ease, notching 17 assists en route to shooting 27 of 58 from the field.

While offense was ultimately the difference in the game, the young Cal team again fell short down the stretch. After mounting an impressive 11-0 run, the Bears closed the deficit to 6 points, trailing only 56-50 with just more than six minutes to play. After that, Bakersfield called a timeout, and Cal failed to score a field goal the rest of the way, ultimately falling 60-52.

The Roadrunners were led by guard Lexus Green, who put up five assists (which was as many as Cal had as a team) and 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting. She had plenty of help too, as five of her teammates each put up 6 points or more.

The Bears were led by more solid performances from Daniels and McIntosh, who put up 9 and 12 points, respectively. The standout was Swedish guard Alma Elsnitz, who put up 14 points in her college debut and showed great promise.

While these losses are no doubt disappointing, it’s important to remember that the Bears are a very young team and were short-handed in both of these games. Cal was missing sophomore guards Cailyn Crocker and Jazlen Green, the leading returning scorer from last season, who received preseason All-Pac-12 honors. Of the eight players who saw the floor Sunday afternoon, two were sophomores and the other six were freshmen.

A team with this much youth is bound to go through growing pains. But the six freshmen on the roster combine to make up the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation, so the potential for greatness is there.

While Daniels and Elsnitz look college-ready, the rest of the freshmen will need to step up if the Bears hope to have more success this season. Additionally, if and when Crocker and Green return from injury, Cal will get a huge boost.

Still, no one is confusing SJSU or Bakersfield for Oregon or Stanford, and with Pac-12 matchups on the immediate horizon, the Bears will be thrust into the fire quickly. Cal will be right back in action Friday, taking on Washington at Haas Pavilion to open conference play.

Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].