Colorado, Utah present 2 distinct tests for Cal women’s basketball

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Antonio Martin/Senior Staff

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The next level is within reach for Cal women’s basketball. Challenging for a tournament berth is the next mark on the horizon, although this may not be the season head coach Charmin Smith and her team hit it.

The Bears are currently 10-6 on the season and, after a thrilling win over USC and distressing loss to UCLA last weekend, 1-4 in conference play.

They have played well in spurts — for a half or quarter at a time. Now, save for another last-minute game postponement due to COVID-19, Smith’s team has a shot at salvaging its poor conference record by earning convincing wins.

Resilience is what the Bears will need after a rocky two months of postponements and Pac-12 losses, and it is what Smith was most proud of after the USC win.

“We didn’t fold when we made mistakes or when they made a big shot,” Smith said. “(USC freshman guard) Rayah Marshall hitting a three, that’s a big shot for them. She got that steal. Those are momentum changers and we didn’t allow it to be that. We responded and didn’t allow them to get a huge run.”

Two home games this weekend, one against Colorado this Friday at 7 p.m. and another against Utah on Sunday at 1 p.m., present Cal with an opportunity to prove that it is a resilient team, and one that is on the rise. Another two losses would be quite the disappointment for Cal fans who held high hopes for the team after an 8-1 start to the season.

Colorado is a fairly even matchup for the Bears. The Buffaloes are 15-6 on the season, but have won just four of their 10 conference games. A decisive 66-43 win over Washington last Sunday was surely a confidence booster for fifth-year head coach JR Payne and her team after losing six of their previous seven games.

The Buffaloes win games on the defensive end of the floor. They rank second in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, and boast the best turnover margin in the conference by a long shot (+6.29). Freshman guard Kindyll Wetta is quietly having one of the best defensive seasons of any first-year player in the country. Her team-leading 52 steals have boosted the Buffs to No. 13 in the country in steals per game.

Cal had 19 turnovers in last Sunday’s disappointing loss to UCLA, so Colorado’s ability to force turnovers might throw the Bears off their game. The Bruins also held Cal to 28% shooting from the field, the Bears’ second-worst shooting performance of the season, despite the fact that UCLA gave up an average of 74 points per game in its previous three conference games.

Friday night may very well be another low-scoring affair if Smith’s team does not find a way to get better looks and build confidence in scoring the ball.

Utah represents a completely different and perhaps tougher challenge, given how well the Utes have played as of late, especially on the offensive side of the floor.

Head coach Lynne Roberts’ team is on a three-game winning streak, including a 78-67 win over Colorado at the end of last month, thanks in part to elite shooting. Last Sunday against Washington State, the Utes shot nearly 43% from beyond the arc after struggling from three against the Huskies.

What is perhaps most surprising about Utah is that while it currently ranks ninth in the nation in scoring offense (79.3 ppg), its leading scorer this season, junior guard Brynna Maxwell, is averaging just 12.2 points per game. The Utes score by committee, which means that the Bears will not be able to slow down the Utes’ offense by singling out any one player.

Two wins this weekend would lift the Bears to 3-4 in Pac-12 play with five games left in the regular season. A winning conference record heading into the Pac-12 tournament is still very much within reach, so college basketball fans should start buying stock now. This program is a hot streak away from being one of the most improved in the country.

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