After a brilliant start to its season, Cal women’s basketball has hit roadblock after roadblock.
A 17-point loss at Washington State began the Bears’ conference schedule and preceded two postponed games due to COVID-19 cases within the Washington and Oregon State programs. Then, in eerily similar fashion, Oregon blew Cal out of the water before COVID-19 cases — this time within its own program — led to two more game postponements.
To summarize: The past two and a half weeks have been less than kind to head coach Charmin Smith’s program.
A single win from either of Cal’s next two scheduled games this Friday and Sunday, both against No. 2 Stanford, would boost the stock of a team who held NCAA tournament hopes at the end of its nonconference schedule.
The Bears have failed to stop the opposition’s best scorers in each of their past two games, a tendency they’ll have to break against the Cardinal — who have displayed exceptional offensive balance this season.
Sophomore forward Cameron Brink, junior guard Haley Jones, senior guard Lexie Hull and junior guard Hannah Jump are all averaging more than 10 points per game this season. Any one of those four could have a breakout night if the Bears do not prevent these top scorers from overrunning the court.
After the Oregon loss, Smith lamented the fact that her team didn’t focus on shutting down the Ducks’ Sydney Parrish before she put up 21 points.
“The message to the team (after the game) was that we need to be better with the things that we can control, one of them being the wide-open looks for Parrish,” Smith said. “We are really good in spurts, but we are not consistently good with anything, and we need consistency.”
Stanford is currently 4-0 in conference play and has not lost a game since losing by just 4 points at No. 1 South Carolina on Dec. 21. On Friday, the Cardinal beat No. 22 Colorado in Boulder before beating Utah by double digits Sunday.
Brink, who led the Cardinal in scoring against the Utes with 24 points, should be at the center of the Bears’ attention this weekend.
After the game, the sophomore explained her strategy against Utah’s double team, a tactic Smith’s squad might employ to stop her.
“I tried my best to seal as low as possible because the higher I sealed, the more room there was for a double (team),” Brink said. “The lower I got, the easier it was for me to just shoot layups, and if they doubled, I’d kick it out and find a shooter.”
Forcing Brink to pass might be a good idea if Hull and Jump weren’t each making more than 40% of their 3-point attempts this year. The Bears will have to pick their poison this weekend if they’re to pull off at least one upset.
And, unfortunately for Cal, Stanford’s defense is just as elite as its offense. Freshman guard Jayda Curry, who was named the fifth-best freshman in the country by ESPN’s Charlie Creme on Wednesday, will have to be firing on all cylinders against a Stanford team who allows the sixth-lowest field goal percentage in the nation (34.2%).
Curry, the nation’s leading scorer among all freshmen (19.5 ppg), had 13 points against the Ducks nearly two weeks ago, her second lowest tally of the season after dealing with an unspecified health issue. Her last game before that came Dec. 21 against Saint Mary’s.
“The fact that she drew eight fouls and was part of getting some of their key players in foul trouble and attacked and shot 12 free throws — I think she’s aggressive,” Smith said. “Once she gets her legs under her and gets back into a groove, I think she’ll make some of the shots she missed as well.”
For a program that has struggled in recent years, playing Stanford close in either matchup this weekend should be seen as a win in the bigger picture. An upset, of course, would be a massive resume booster for a team who may finally be good enough to expect more than just moral victories.
William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].