Cal hopes to rediscover magic against Utah, Colorado

Photo of Cal Women's Basketball team
Antonio Martin/Staff

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Video games are all fun and games until a sibling secretly changes the difficulty level from “rookie” to “hall of fame.”

Truly difficult tests are now facing Cal women’s basketball after it started this season 9-2 before dropping its first two conference games against Washington State and Oregon. A road trip to Seattle to play Washington on Jan. 2, as well as a home game against Oregon State scheduled for Jan. 7, were postponed due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols taken by the two opposing teams.

After suffering blowout losses to Washington State on New Year’s Eve and Oregon on Sunday, head coach Charmin Smith’s team will head to Salt Lake City on Thursday to take on 8-3 Utah before playing 13-0 Colorado in Boulder on Sunday.

Much like the Bears, the Utes impressed in early-season nonconference games at home but are still untested against Pac-12 opponents. Unlike Cal, however, Utah has played tough competition; head coach Lynne Roberts’ team lost to now-No. 18 BYU early last month as well as current No. 23 Oklahoma on Dec. 21 in its most recent game. Cal’s next opponent kept the Sooners within striking distance for the majority of the game but allowed 32 points in the final quarter. The Utes’ last four scheduled games — their first four scheduled conference games — were postponed due to health and safety protocols.

After playing No. 2 Stanford on Friday, No. 22 Colorado will have a day to recover in Boulder before its contest against Cal. The Buffaloes have the best defense in the conference at the moment (allowing just 52.1 points per game); won their first two games over conference opponents (UCLA and USC); and are the sole remaining unbeaten team in the country.

While Cal has leaned on Pac-12 leading scorer and freshman phenom guard Jayda Curry (19.5 ppg) on the offensive side of the floor, Utah relies on a well-balanced offense. The Utes’ leading scorer, freshman forward Jenna Johnson (13.8 ppg) is not quite as consistent as Curry but still boasts five games of 21 or more points this season. Even without a prolific scorer, Utah is averaging the most points per game of all 12 conference teams (85.4) by quite a large margin (Oregon is in second place averaging nearly 1o points per game fewer).

The Buffaloes’ offense is also evenly spread, with leading scorer Mya Hollingshed (14.6 ppg) receiving help from Quay Miller, Jaylyn Sherrod and Frida Formann, all of whom average 8.5 or more points per game.

After losing its first two Pac-12 games by an average of 31 points, Cal is searching for the magic it had through the team’s first seven games, during which it went undefeated. The Bears are still very much in the NCAA tournament picture but will have to start proving themselves against stiffer competition if they hope to woo the selection committee come March.

This week’s results against an offensively talented Utah and defensively elite Colorado may be important bellwethers of how Cal will finish the season that saw a historically successful start.

William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].