There is nothing quite like an early afternoon thriller showdown on a typical Thursday. Cal women’s basketball bounced back to its newfound winning culture after defeating Fresno State on Dec. 2 but required down-to-the-wire action to do so.
The blue and gold came out firing on all cylinders, producing a 15-5 run in the opening minutes of action. The second and third quarters were characterized by solid looks and efficient ball movement for both teams, with the Cavinder twins — junior guards Haley and Hanna — leading the Bulldogs’ relentless efforts.
Back and forth through the final period, Haley Cavinder rounded out her game-high 24 points with a dagger in the paint to place Fresno State in front, 72-71, with under one minute remaining.
Noticeably rattled as they advanced past half court, the Bears shared the ball, searching unsuccessfully for a go-ahead bucket — that is, until junior guard Cailyn Crocker found sophomore forward Michelle Onyiah under the rim off a baseline drive. Onyiah converted the easy layup to put the blue and gold up 1 with 16 seconds to play. From there, Cal managed to pull out a defensive stop and emerged victorious in an exciting fashion.
With a satisfactory under-pressure win in their rearview, the Bears will flock to the South to contest an accomplished Arkansas squad.
Sunday’s matchup will undoubtedly be an uphill battle for the blue and gold, as the Razorbacks are a formidable national program, exponentially gaining strength each year under head coach Mike Neighbors. Competing in arguably the most cutthroat conference in women’s basketball composed of No. 1 South Carolina and traditional powerhouse programs in Tennessee and Mississippi State, Arkansas boasts a fourth-place SEC West finish and an NCAA tournament appearance in its successful 2021-22 season.
This year, the Razorbacks have jumped to a 6-2 start, tearing off four straight victories after falling to No. 2 UConn. But in a shocking turn of events Thursday evening, Arkansas was served a heartbreaking loss on the road against UCF. Arkansas has ousted its opponents through team basketball and all-around scoring efforts, as five Razorbacks average points in the double figures. Redshirt junior forward Erynn Barnum commands critical defensive attention, averaging 11.5 points per game and leading her team on the boards with 6.1 per matchup.
Junior guard Makayla Daniels adds an average of 11.9 points per game on 44.6% shooting, while Week 1 SEC Freshman of the Week Samara Spencer shoots a stellar 59% from 3-point range.
Jersey Wolfenbarger is yet another player to watch among Arkansas’ seemingly countless weapons. A former five-star recruit, the freshman stands at 6’5” but plays as a guard. Cal forwards Dalayah Daniels and Evelien Lutje Schipholt will surely have their hands full seeking to contain the threat of Wolfenbarger, who is already drawing comparisons to Kevin Durant’s style of play.
To situate themselves in a competitive position or potentially pull off an upset, the Bears must play with composure on the road, take care of the ball and assert their forces in the battle for rebounds. Seen time and time again, Arkansas loves to pressure the ball. Its stealthy defense has forced an average of 19 turnovers per game this season. Further, the Razorbacks use their size and athleticism to assume a bullyish persona in the paint, amassing 39.2 rebounds per contest and five blocked shots per game on average.
In an attempt to steer clear of embarrassment in the South, Cal must revert to its defensive roots. Arkansas averages 80.8 points per game, tallying fewer than 80 points in only one matchup so far early in the season. If graduate transfer Jadyn Bush and her front-court company can restrict the Razorbacks’ advances in lane and keep the scoreboard in the 70s range, there is hope for the Bears to remain competitive.
Regardless of the outcome, this difficult road game will serve as a valuable test for the blue and gold to prepare them for the challenging Pac-12 schedule that lies ahead. Tune in Sunday at 11 a.m. as the Bears hunt for a miracle against SEC powerhouse Arkansas.
Jane Kenny covers women’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].