Bears host Ducks as COVID-19 wreaks havoc across Pac-12

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Kyle Garcia Takata/Staff

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With a refreshingly dignified 9-2 preseason start, the Cal women’s basketball train saw itself chugging toward a glimmering light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Although making strides on the right track, the remainder of the 2021-22 season will be a far cry from an express ride for the Bears as a spike in COVID-19 cases poses a ruthless roadblock.

The new year brings the same old story with professional and collegiate athletics alike facing daily COVID-19 protocol disruptions; the Pac-12 is certainly not immune to the frustrating unpredictability. In the first two weeks of league action, the conference has postponed or canceled 16 contests. Thus far, both Cal’s Jan. 2 matchup at Washington and the Jan. 7 game against Oregon State have been postponed due to the opposing teams’ health and safety protocols.

Despite the absences and cancellations, the “Conference of Champions” is living up to its nickname with national title contenders serving polished performances and a great deal of individual talent all over the league. Without its engine at full strength, Cal women’s basketball has an uphill battle awaiting.

In the conference’s sole New Year’s Eve game played, of an intended six matchups, Washington State (9-4) made the first punch to throw the shorthanded blue and gold off course with an embarrassing 42-69 beatdown. The Pac-12 opener saw the Bears struggle to move the ball effectively on offense, defend the 3-point shot and rebound in the absence of their key trio: Jayda Curry, Dalayah Daniels and Jazlen Green.

Head coach Charmin Smith reported Green as sidelined with knee irritation but did not provide specific details for the statuses of Curry and Daniels. All three are listed as game day decisions ahead of Sunday’s home-court contest against a challenging Oregon squad.

While Smith felt the undoubtedly potent loss in the absence of Curry — who averages 20.1 points per game to lead the Bears’ scoring — and is hopeful for her return, she called on the rest of her players to step up.

“We have gotten comfortable relying on Jayda to make a lot of plays for us, to handle pressure and to do a lot of the attacking and create easy opportunities for other people. … We need other people to step in with a little more confidence and know that they are capable of much more,” Smith said in a press conference.

In the potential extended absence of Curry, the Bears will likely look to veteran guard Leilani McIntosh to bring life to the short-handed lineup. An established floor general in her own right, leading the team with 4.4 assists per game, McIntosh will be key to generating effective ball movement on offense and creating quality looks for her teammates. However, contributing an average of 4.7 points per contest, McIntosh’s lone scoring efforts will not fill the void, and thus Cal hopes for bench contributors in 5’11” guards Mia Mastrov and Alma Elsnitz to boost its impact.

On the flip side, the Ducks (7-4) enter Haas Pavilion with a mighty reputation and a plethora of weapons. The return of 5’9” sophomore guard and 2021 All-Pac-12 and Pac-12-All-Freshman team member Te-Hina Paopao will likely elevate Oregon’s backcourt play. She will join the likes of 6’5” redshirt junior forward Nyara Sabally and 5’7” junior guard Endyia Rogers averaging 16.3 and 13 points per game, respectively.

Further, Oregon’s roster potentially features size as an advantage, with nine players standing more than 6 feet tall. If the Bears want any chance at remaining competitive, they must crash the boards assertively, as the Ducks utilize their height inside to average 7.3 more rebounds per game than their opponents.

Quite literally a tall task for the blue and gold, they must put their best foot forward and keep chugging along. The matchup is set to tip off at 1 p.m. PST at Cal’s Haas Pavilion, and fans can stream live on the Pac-12 network.

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