While most teams enjoy the comfort of home-court advantage, Cal women’s basketball experienced a nightmare start at Haas Pavilion, losing all of its first five home games. So, while the winless Bears will be on the road for the first time this season against No. 11 UCLA, the trip down to Westwood may be just what they need to get their season back on track.
Almost everything that could go wrong for the Bears this season has gone wrong. Their troubles began with devastating injuries that left four of their five scholarship guards out, three of whom will miss the entire season. Head coach Charmin Smith has resorted to using a lineup of only seven healthy bodies, the minimum number required to play games, including five freshmen and a walk-on.
Somewhat predictably, this young, short-handed and inexperienced team has struggled. The blue and gold dropped three close nonconference games against mid-major opponents, and things only got worse when Pac-12 play began. Washington dominated Cal in a matchup that, on paper, should have been much more even. Perhaps the most embarrassing blow was Cal’s latest loss against archrival Stanford. The Cardinal came to Berkeley and embarrassed the Bears, playing them off the court in an 83-38 shellacking.
While the No. 11 Bruins aren’t quite as loaded with talent as No. 1 Stanford, they are still a force to be reckoned with. UCLA is 4-1 this season and fresh off of an impressive win over rival USC. The Bruins are led by a devastating one-two punch of sophomore guard Charisma Osborne and senior forward Michaela Onyenwere. The combo averages 19.2 and 16.2 points per game, respectively, making UCLA the only team in the Pac-12 to have two of the conference’s top five scorers on its roster.
The Bruins have dominated the boards too, as Onyenwere ranks third in the conference in rebounds (an average of 9.2 per game) and the team as a whole averages the third-most in the Pac-12. UCLA finished second in the conference last season and had legitimate title aspirations before the year was cut short due to COVID-19. Now, in Onyenwere’s senior year, expect the Bruins to be a real threat in this season’s NCAA tournament.
The Bears will need a lot to go right if they want a shot at upsetting the Bruins. They’ll receive an immediate boost from the return of sophomore guard Leilani McIntosh. The Arizona local is second on the team in scoring this year, averaging 11.3 points per game, and will provide immediate production and experience for a dangerously thin guard rotation.
Despite McIntosh’s return, freshman standout Dalayah Daniels will likely be the focal point of Cal’s offense once again. The five-star recruit leads the team in points scored, steals and blocks, and is second in rebounds and assists. Only five games into her young career, Daniels already looks like an immediate impact contributor across the board, and she should only continue to improve. Even if the Bears’ losing streak continues, Daniels’ play will be a bright spot for fans.
If Cal wants to get into the win column, though, the supporting cast around Daniels and McIntosh needs to step up. The biggest key may be the play of sophomore forward Evelien Lutje Schipholt, who has shown some serious inconsistency this season. Against San Francisco, she looked like a true difference-maker, dropping a career-high 20 points and 10 rebounds to go along with it. She was almost invisible the very next game against Stanford, with zero points and only two rebounds. If Schipholt can consistently play at the level she did against San Francisco, then the Bears should be able to steal a few wins this season. Cal could become a very plucky underdog if McIntosh, Daniels and Schipholt all contribute at once. If Schipholt has more outings like the one she had against Stanford, however, Cal may continue to struggle.
The Bears face a tough task Saturday on the road against a high-powered UCLA team ranked No. 11 in the nation and will need their best players to be on their game if they hope to pull off an improbable upset. Still, after the heartbreaking lows Cal has experienced thus far, it must have hope that things will only go up from here. Securing a win on its first road trip of the season would be a perfect place to start.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].