It seems like the college basketball season began just yesterday and already the season is coming to a close. Cal women’s basketball enters its final homestand of the year this weekend with matchups against Arizona and Arizona State, desperately hoping to avoid a winless season. The Bears are running out of time, though, and getting in the win column for the first time this season will require a lot of work.
Up first is a Friday afternoon date against the No. 10 Wildcats. Arizona’s veteran core is peaking in its final year together, and the dominant Wildcats look like a true national championship contender. They enter the game riding a six-game win streak, and they waxed the Bears 69-33 in their most recent matchup back in January.
Their leader, senior guard Aari McDonald, is an elite scorer who may be the best player in the entire Pac-12 and a surefire top pick in this spring’s WNBA draft. While her 18.2 points per game make her the focal point of Arizona’s offense, it has plenty of other talented players who can pick up the slack if teams overcommit defensively to McDonald. While eight Wildcats average more than 4 points a game, the Robin to McDonald’s Batman is junior forward Cate Reese, who averages 12.6 points per game and a team-leading 5.7 rebounds.
The Bears will have to be perfect to compete with the No. 2 team in the Pac-12. The top team in the Pac-12, cross-bay rival No. 6 Stanford, is the Bears’ final opponent of the regular season. With three games remaining on the conference schedule, Cal’s best and perhaps last chance at finding a victory will come against Arizona State on Sunday.
While the Sun Devils aren’t national championship contenders, they aren’t pushovers either, boasting a 10-7 overall record. ASU lacks a true superstar and so instead scores by committee. Leading scorer Taya Hanson (12.5 points per game) can certainly score when she wants to, though, something Cal saw firsthand when she erupted for a school record-tying seven 3-pointers to secure a Sun Devils victory last month.
But that game was the closest match the Bears have played all year, as they lost in a 56-53 heartbreaker after sophomore Leilani McIntosh missed a potential game-winner. Cal has happier memories against the Sun Devils too: Just last season, as the 12th seed in the Pac-12 tournament, it upset then-No. 24 ASU. For whatever reason, the Bears match up well against this version of the Sun Devils and should have a real chance at victory.
Unfortunately for Cal, recent bumps in the road have put even more of a damper on an already forgettable season. First, the Bears had their season put on hold due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program and missed five games over 21 days.
The team returned to action two weeks ago looking rusty, as two more losses saw it fall to 0-13 on the year. But for the first time in a while, it looked to be building toward something, hanging tight in close 62-51 and 67-52 losses to Utah and Colorado, respectively.
The star of that two-game weekend was debutant freshman and 17-year-old guard Mia Mastrov, who graduated high school early to join the team. She was electric in her debut, leading the team in scoring with 20 points and looking like a star in the making. Seeing how she fares against elite competition will be an area of interest for the Bears this weekend.
Immediately after that weekend of action, the Bears were inactive once again as injury troubles forced them to cancel last weekend’s road trip to face both Pac-12 Oregon schools. The extent and severity of these injuries remain unclear, as well as how they’ll affect the team this weekend. But even if everyone’s healthy, the lasting effects of multiple stops and restarts this season will surely be a factor.
If Cal hopes to secure its first win of the year, it cannot rely on a 17-year-old freshman to carry it. Players such as McIntosh and freshman forwards Michelle Onyiah and Dalayah Daniels, the Bears’ scoring leader, have shown flashes of potential but are inconsistent. In the game against Utah in which Mastrov dropped 20 points, for example, Daniels was a nonfactor, scoring a season-low 6 points in a close loss.
Cal has a bright future ahead of it. Multiple players have proven that they can step up to carry the scoring load. But until several Bears prove that they can consistently contribute, the wins will be hard to come by.
The Bears will need to be at their best this weekend against both Arizona teams. While the team has shown glimpses of progress all season, the time for moral victories has passed. With the harsh reality of a winless season staring the program in the face, it looks like it’s finally now or never for this Cal team.
Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].