Bears look to start new year strong against Sun Devils

Photo of Cal Women's Basketball team in a huddle
Josh Kahen/Senior Staff

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Similar to many others, Cal women’s basketball had a tough 2020, and it’s clear it’ll have plenty of resolutions for the new year. The start to the team’s COVID-19-impacted campaign has been plagued by heartbreaking nonconference defeats, season-ending injuries and blowout losses to Pac-12 rivals. The year has been difficult, to say the least, and the Bears have come out of it shorthanded and with an 0-7 record. But with the turn of the calendar comes renewed hope, and encouraging performances suggest that the future may be bright in Berkeley.

On Friday, the Bears have a chance to put their disappointing start behind them and begin the journey to a better 2021. They venture to the desert for a New Year’s Day clash with the Sun Devils.

Arizona State has looked strong to start the year, sporting a 6-2 record and boasting a victory over a USC team that just beat Cal in its most recent matchup. Like the Bears, the Sun Devils are a young team and hold six freshmen on their roster. Arizona State, however, has much more depth and experience to complement its young talent. The Sun Devils are led by junior guard Taya Hanson, who paces the team with nearly 12 points per game, while the Bears do not even have a junior or senior on scholarship this season.

The Sun Devils are clearly the better team on paper, but the same was true in last season’s Pac-12 tournament. The Bears, who entered the tournament sitting last in the conference, pulled off a momentous 71-67 upset over the fifth-seeded Sun Devils. That victory served as the highlight of a mostly dark campaign, and the blue and gold will look to capture some of that magic again Friday.

Cal may have been the worst team in the nation through its opening seven games. The team not only sits alone in the basement of the Pac-12 but is the only Power Five school to have played a full schedule and still remain winless — Virginia sits at 0-5, but the team has had its season derailed by COVID-19 complications and hasn’t seen the court since Dec. 13.

None of that will matter, however, if the Bears can string together some victories in the new year and bounce back from their slow start. And while Cal hasn’t yet found its way into the win column, there have been upward trends and bright spots in the Bears’ recent games.

Cal suffered back-to-back demoralizing blowouts, losing 83-38 and 71-37 to Stanford and UCLA, respectively. In its most recent game against USC, however, things looked slightly better. While it’s true that the blue and gold were facing the only other team that was winless in Pac-12 play, they played the Trojans tough in a respectable 77-54 loss.

The standout play of Cal’s young prospects has been the most encouraging part of its season thus far. If there is any silver lining to the three season-ending injuries the Bears suffered in the backcourt, it is that talented freshmen have been given an incredible opportunity to step up, and many of them have done just that.

“This is all about building for the future,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith. “This is about building for when the expectation is to cut down nets and make deep runs into the tournament.”

Five-star recruit Ugonne Onyiah broke out for a career-high 16-point performance against USC after never cracking double figures in her first six games. Standout freshman forward Dalayah Daniels has been doing it all for the Bears this season, leading the team in points, rebounds and assists in only her first year.

Sophomores have taken big leaps too. Evelien Lutje Schipholt took charge against San Francisco in a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound performance, and Leilani McIntosh has done an admirable job commanding a severely undermanned backcourt, sitting second on the team in points per game.

So, while losses may continue to pile up, it’s clear that this season has always been about progress. The Bears are an incredibly youthful team, so while that inexperience has haunted them thus far this season, it should only help in the future. Cal’s young players have shown glimpses of why they combined to create the No. 7 recruiting class in the nation.

“Right now, we have to keep playing until the final buzzer because we have to continue to work on things,” Smith said. “I am continuing to teach in every moment, so that we can be better and have some success.”

The journey continues against Arizona State, as the young team must not let the string of losses get it down and continue to grow. Fans shouldn’t expect sudden win streaks, but they should hope for competitive matchups and continued bright spots from Cal’s youth movement. If and when key players return from injury and the team turns their flashes of brilliance into consistent play, the victories should begin to come. While the road ahead is long, the start of a new year should remind the Bears that hope for a brighter future remains.

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