New beginnings: Bears open Pac-12 play on New Year’s Eve against Washington State

photo of basketball players
Caroline Lobel/Staff

“I am proud that we did what we were supposed to do. Now it’s time to turn our attention to Pac-12 opponents,” said head coach Charmin Smith.

And that time has finally come. Cal women’s basketball has spent the past two months excelling in its role as the underdog, soaring above underwhelming pre-season expectations to collect a 9-2 record in opening nonconference play. With momentum and a winning culture instituted in the early stages of the 2021-22 season, Cal is in the best-imagined situation for upcoming league play, but nevertheless will be put to a tough test against the merciless top-dog talent of other Pac-12 programs.

On Friday, Dec. 31, the legitimacy of this Cal team will be tested under its first Pac-12 trial as it opens its conference schedule in Pullman, against Washington State.

This New Year’s Eve matchup will mark the first time these two teams have met since January 2020 when WSU’s outstanding 58% shooting from the field led the Cougars to a 92-66 victory over the Bears. COVID-19 restrictions and protocols kept the two programs apart in the 2020-21 season.

This season, WSU will welcome the blue and gold to Beasley Coliseum sporting a comparable 8-3 record. The Cougars collected a down-to-the-wire victory over a disciplined Gonzaga program before falling to both BYU and Stony Brook within 24 hours on a road stint.

The Cougars are led by a talented weapon in 5’10” sophomore guard Charlisse Leger-Walker. The New Zealand native establishes her presence all over the court, averaging 17.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.3 steals per contest. Scoring in double figures in 10 of 11 matchups this season, Leger-Walker’s dominance has not gone unnoticed as she was named Pac-12 Player of the Week on Dec. 13, following her strong contributions in the Cougars’ pair of comeback wins over Gonzaga and Boise State.

Similarities in several elements of play between both teams will make Friday’s matchup a must-watch showdown. The Bears will be tasked with combating the Cougars’ size and athleticism in the post-position, as 6’3” center Bella Murekatete averages 8.6 rebounds per game for WSU and is coming off of a commanding 13-rebound performance in a recent matchup against Stony Brook. 6’1” forward Ula Motuga adds an average of 6.6 rebounds to lift the team to an average of 38.3 boards per game.

Typically effective in its inside-out play in the paint, Cal has the proper toolbox to combat the Cougars. The Bears can look to 6’2” junior forward Evelien Lutje Schipholt. With her fifth double-double in points and rebounds of the season against Saint Mary’s, the frontcourt standout was honored as the Pac-12 Player of the Week for the week of Dec. 20-26 and shows no signs of slowing down. It is critical that Lutje Schipholt, along with forwards Dalayah Daniels, Michelle Onyiah and Jadyn Bush, penalize the Cougars by playing bully ball in the key to crash the boards, produce second-chance buckets and rotate on help-side defense.

A marvelous force and leader in her first 11 collegiate games, point guard Jayda Curry is the player to watch as the Bears open up conference play. Averaging 20.1 points on 43.5% shooting, Curry has established herself as a high-impact player and a confident scorer — a feat that has made noise in and around the Pac-12. 

“Heading into Pac-12 play, she has the goods, she can do it. But, we know that everyone’s going to be coming for her and try to lock her down defensively.” Smith said.

Washington State will likely hone in on pressuring and limiting Curry in scouting reports, thus implementing the ultimate response test for the freshman phenom. 

“I’ve talked to her about what’s coming … people are going to be keyed in on Jayda.” Smith said. “She wants to score, I want her to score, it’s best for our team when she is scoring, but I also want her to look extremely confident and poised out there all the time, and sometimes that is challenging for a freshman.”

As the Bears gear up for highly anticipated Pac-12 play against Washington State, the nation has seen a rise in COVID-19 cases. Cal’s trip up north will be cut short as the Jan. 2nd contest at Washington has been postponed due to COVID-19 protocols within the Washington program. The two programs will work together with the Pac-12 in attempts to reschedule the matchup. Cal fans hope that the Bears can continue through the season without further disruptions.

Taking the season one game at a time, Cal is presented with a winnable matchup to end the year on a high note. Fans can tune in to the Pac-12 Network at 7 p.m. PST on Dec. 31.

Jane Kenny covers women’s basketball. Contact her at [email protected].