Bears fight until finish in close loss to No. 10 Wildcats

Photo of Cal Women's Basketball
Anthony Angel Pérez/Staff

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For most of Friday’s contest, 0-13 Cal women’s basketball hung right with 14-2 Arizona, the second-best team in the Pac-12 and No. 10 team in the country. The Bears even held a narrow 46-45 lead with a little more than six minutes to go in the game and had gone blow-for-blow with a national championship contender.

The Wildcats eventually pulled away down the stretch, riding veteran experience and a deep bench to a 59-50 victory. Still, the performance was by far Cal’s best in what’s been a long season and a sign that the year of growing pains may ultimately be worth it. 

The Bears were surprisingly competitive in the first half and entered the break down just 28-23. It might’ve been expected, though, that the talented Wildcats would stretch their lead in the third quarter against an overachieving and shorthanded Cal squad once fatigue caught up to them. Instead, it was the Bears who came out of the break flying, outscoring the Wildcats 20-15 to enter a decisive fourth quarter deadlocked at 43 before Arizona pulled away in the final five minutes.

The story of this game was the battle of giants between Arizona’s star senior guard Aari McDonald and Cal’s talented freshman forward Dalayah Daniels. McDonald, who averages 18.2 points per game and leads the conference in steals, is arguably the best player in the entire Pac-12 and a surefire top pick in this spring’s WNBA draft. She had her way this afternoon, torching the Bears for a game-high 28 points.

Entering this matchup though, the Bears knew McDonald would find ways to get buckets. Most impressive was how they were able to counter that through the performance of a rising star of their own. Daniels shone for Cal tonight with 10 rebounds and 24 points on hyper-efficient 9-13 shooting. All of her field goals came from inside the paint as she dominated down low to keep the Bears in the game.

The pair traded baskets back and forth throughout the second half, but every time McDonald unleashed her quick handles to get to the cup, Daniels would respond right back with dominant power moves to bully her way to the rim. It truly was a battle for the ages, as two talented players on the top of their games did everything in their power to will their respective teams to victory.

While the game was defined by the matchup between McDonald and Daniels, both phenoms had their own partners in crime who came through with secondary scoring. For the Wildcats, this was senior Trinity Baptiste, who chipped in 11 clutch points and led her team in rebounds. Ugonne Onyiah stepped up for the Bears, with the freshman forward posting a double-double of her own with 13 points and 10 rebounds. No other player on either side had more than six points, so it really was a battle between these four.

Ultimately, the difference was that the Wildcats were led by two talented and experienced seniors, pushing for a national championship with a peaking core in their final year together. The Bears, on the other hand, were led by two freshmen whose college careers are just getting started.

Cal was in the game too despite many familiar issues returning, including going 1-12 from three, shooting 65% on free throws (Arizona made 87.5% of theirs) and surrendering 18 turnovers (the Wildcats had only six). Had any one of these problems been addressed, the Bears may have been able to steal the win, and should they find a way to eventually fix them, they proved today that they have the talent to compete with anyone in the conference.

The harsh reality is that the Bears are still among the worst teams in the country, and with just two games remaining on the schedule, they may face the disappointing reality of a winless season. With that said, today’s performance should allow them to momentarily forget all that, as they proved that the team is trending in the right direction and found hope that a brighter future may lie ahead.

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