Cal caps off dominant nonconference play with win over St. Mary’s

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Antonio Martin/Staff

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Before the season began, head coach Charmin Smith set Cal women’s basketball’s first benchmark: She wanted to finish nonconference play with at least a 9-2 record. This seemed unlikely for a team coming off of a 1-16 season that was projected to be the worst in its conference in a preseason poll. Many coaches would have probably set a more achievable goal, but Smith refused to compromise.

Today, as the Bears begin to briefly hibernate at home during Christmas break, they sit with that exact 9-2 record after a 73-55 win over St. Mary’s College. This win holds a lot of meaning for this up-and-coming team. Not only did it emerge victorious, but it did so in a way that shows real growth and improvement.

Throughout the season, Cal’s offense has been primarily run through its guards. Jayda Curry has carried most of the scoring load and Leilani McIntosh has been the primary playmaker. The team has also shot well from three and excelled around the perimeter.

But Tuesday, the team was led by two bigs. The 6’2” junior Evelien Lutje Schipholt and 6’3” sophomore Dalayah Daniels both dominated in the paint and on the glass. They scored 34 of the team’s 73 points, with neither having attempted a 3-pointer. Instead, they used their length and strength to impose their will on the defense and repeatedly put the ball in the basket.

Lutje Schipholt was the star of the night, notching a 20-point double-double on 56% shooting. She was doing everything offensively: posting up, cleaning up the glass and running several dribble handoffs. No matter how the defense guarded her, she found a way to punish it. After the game, she credited the team’s fluidity for her success.

“There was a great flow. I’m incredibly proud of our team. Offensively and defensively, this was probably our best game so far,” Lutje Schipholt said. “When things flow, I usually flow too.”

Smith echoed this enthusiasm for her team’s offensive flow, and credits assistant coach Kelly Cole with helping the team heavily improve on that end.

“I’m really excited about it. This is something that I put to Kelly Cole to help with our offensive efficiency. And she’s done a great job of helping with the back end and the movement keeping things flowing,” Smith said. “If you know our team you’ll see some of the same familiar sets that we use today to get (Evelien) some buckets on the block.”

Cole and Smith had history together before the former joined Cal as an assistant this year — they were both on the same Boston College staff when the team won the Big East title in 2004. Cole has over two decades of coaching experience, from Northwestern to Northeastern. At the latter, she spent seven years as head coach and led the Huskies to their first ever Women’s National Invitation Tournament, or WNIT, appearance two years ago. Smith brought her in to help with the team’s then-lackluster offense, which has already proved to be a brilliant hire.

The team’s offense still wouldn’t be anything without its players. Daniels and Curry both deserve praise for their performance against St. Mary’s. Curry finished with 18 points, six rebounds and three assists, and also snagged three steals on the defensive end. Daniels made an impact off the bench with 14 points, eight boards, three assists and four steals. But maybe most importantly, both of them scored efficiently. This offense isn’t about letting individuals compile numbers, but rather doing what’s best for the team.

When the brief holiday break ends, the Bears begin their real challenge. They enter conference play in arguably the best NCAA women’s basketball conference in the nation. They’re not projected to be among the elite teams, but then again, they weren’t expected to dominate nonconference play either. It’ll be tough, but this team hasn’t failed to meet any of their goals yet — perhaps Cal women’s basketball is just getting started.

Casey Grae covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].