In a season defined by what could have been after a 9-2 start, it was only fitting that Cal came within 7 points of securing at least a .500 record.
Instead, head coach Charmin Smith’s team finished the season 12-13, its third losing season in a row, after a 60-66 loss to sixth-seed Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday. The defeat marked Cal’s second consecutive first-round exit in the conference tournament.
In a prior matchup with the Utes on Feb. 13 in Berkeley, the Bears forced overtime but ultimately came up 5 points short. With about three and a half minutes remaining Wednesday, it seemed as though 11th-seed Cal might do the same again after junior guard Leilani McIntosh’s floated pass found sophomore forward Dalayah Daniels in the low post for an easy layup to tie the game at 56.
But two tough finishes by Utah’s Jenna Johnson in the paint, one before and one after a turnover by freshman guard Jayda Curry, gave the Utes a 6-point lead heading into the final minute of the fourth quarter. Freshman guard Gianna Kneepkens, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, later gave the Utes a 4-point lead with a tough drive from the left corner in which she got both McIntosh and Michelle Onyiah to bite on consecutive pump fakes.
Kneepkens finished with 20 points to lead Utah in scoring, while Curry’s 16 points led the Bears.
After the loss, Smith praised Curry for handling the pressure of being Cal’s best player all season, especially given the fact that she’s a freshman.
“I just want to say, she’s just a joy to coach. And her teammates love her,” Smith said of Curry. “There’s been a lot on her shoulders, and I’m proud of how she’s performed. And I think it bodes well for us that our best player is also a phenomenal person with an amazing attitude.”
Onyiah finished second in scoring for the Bears with 14 points to go along with eight rebounds. She had an almost perfect shooting night, going 6-7 from the field.
Ultimately, costly errors made the difference for a Cal team that just couldn’t seem to put it all together on any given day this season. The Utes finished with 20 second-chance points, as well as 15 points off of turnovers.
Smith sounded like a broken record in the postgame press conference, citing a few mistakes that came back to haunt the Bears in the close matchup.
“Obviously very disappointed. Utah is a really good team. I give them a lot of credit,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to do enough to get the win. I’m proud of our team and our fight. And we just gotta eliminate some mistakes and just continue to work to get better so that we can have some postseason play and move further along in March and in the future.”
Now three seasons into her tenure as Cal’s head coach, Smith must already start to feel the pressure to finally earn an NCAA tournament bid. A Smith-led Cal women’s basketball team has never advanced past the second round of the Pac-12 tournament (see 2019, in which the Bears upset fifth-seed Arizona State before being stomped out by Arizona in the second round) and Cal hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2019, when former head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s Bears made the second round of the big dance.
For Cal fans, “almost” won’t cut it for much longer. That said, they have reason to believe Smith’s program is in good shape to finally make a breakthrough. This year’s record, 12-13, is a huge improvement on last year’s abysmal one (1-16). And with elite freshman Jayda Curry presumably returning for another year, the Bears already have a solid cornerstone.
Higher expectations, however, mean that there will be no such thing as “pleasant surprises.” This offseason, Cal fans will wait with bated breath to see whether or not Smith’s team will finally make that breakthrough they have been waiting for.
William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].