Cal women's basketball season ends in close loss to Utah
The Bears end the season with six straight losses by single digits
I was in the stands for Cal’s loss to Washington State, but after spending eight hours in Berkeley last Saturday I decided I’d much rather write about a fun MBB win over Stanford than a WBB loss that was like so many other losses Cal has experienced over the last month.
In January, Cal played all of two Pac-12 games, both heavily impacted by COVID, and got blown out. They returned to the court in time for the toughest game on their schedule on the road against national title contender Stanford.
Since that point, the Bears have been largely whole and healthy, and have gone 1-8 against Pac-12 opponents, with an average margin of -5.7 points/game in that span. I suppose it is kinda funny that the one close game Cal managed to pull out was against former coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
Having watched more late game breakdowns than I would have expected over the past few weeks, I can’t help but get the feeling that the Bears have been letting the moment get to them - playing too aggressively on both ends in an effort to make something happen.
You saw it in the critical defensive possession of the game, when Cal pressed so strongly that the defense got out of position, which led Leilani Macintosh to close out a 3 too aggressively, which led Michelle Onyiah to close out a 2 point jumper too aggressively, and the result was an easy layup.
You saw it in the critical offensive possession, when Jayda Curry attacked the bucket too recklessly and lost control of the ball between a double team.
Meanwhile, it was Utah who played in control, earned good late shots, hit their free throws, and emerged with a close win. You can say that the Bears are young (they are!) and even more inexperienced than their age would suggest due to so many COVID cancellations (true!). But Utah’s rotation in this game was led by two freshmen and a sophomore; experience is relevant, but it isn’t destiny.
One storyline of the game was Pac-12 Freshman of the Year as voted by the coaches vs. Pac-12 Freshman of the Year as voted by the media. Unfortunately for us Bears, Utah’s Gianna Kneepkens (20 points on 13 shots, sheesh) won the team battle and the individual battle over Jayda Curry on the night.
The results from this singular game doesn’t change the fact that the coach’s vote was a very, very silly decision. When I saw that an 18.7 points/game scorer lost out to an 11.7 points/game scorer, I figured that there must be some reason; maybe Kneepkens had a crazy high shooting percentage, or she was a brilliant rebounder or a gifted passer or piled up a ton of defensive counting stats or SOMETHING that would make up for such a significant scoring gap.
Because I’ll be the first to admit that Jayda Curry isn’t yet an efficient scorer, and I was open to the idea that maybe Kneepkens had other strengths that would make up for the points.
Except there aren’t. Kneepkens has 5 inches on Curry but barely outrebounds the Cal guard. Curry has twice as many assists and more steals. Kneepkens is only marginally more efficient as a scorer. And Utah’s defense was ever so slightly worse than Cal’s defense in Pac-12 play, so you can’t even argue that there’s some sort of clear defensive value either.
In short the coaches got it wrong, which might have something to do with the fact that Cal played so few Pac-12 games and the coaches didn’t get a chance to see Curry in person more than a game each (at best).
A sneaky reason Cal lost this game, and also a sneaky reason Cal almost won the game?
Dalayah Daniels picked up an AWFUL 2nd foul on a phantom charge, then picked up a questionable 3rd foul right before halftime just after re-entering the game. When Daniels played she was excellent on offense, but her defense late in the game was passive, because foul trouble dictated that she couldn’t challenge shots. It played a major role in Utah’s late game offensive success, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Utah was explicitly attacking a key player with four fouls.
Except that Michelle Onyiah had a massive, break-through game playing behind Daniels. Cal’s sophomore forward went for 14 points (on 7 shots!), 8 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 23 minutes. She had to leave the game after suffering what appeared to be a serious injury in the 4th quarter, though she re-entered the game in the final minute to the relief of everybody.
Onyiah’s strong play was the biggest encouraging sign from this game, as Cal really could use another strong interior defender and rebounder. I still have my concerns about the extent to which Cal tries to force the ball into the post at times when you have shooters like Curry and Green, but if that’s the game Cal wants to play then they need a player like Onyiah to play like she did against Utah.
Of course, we’ve seen individual flashes from individual players in each and every one of these close losses. The hope over the off-season is that Cal will get those kinds of games more frequently, and in sync as a team.
There’s no guarantee that it will happen. Nut it’s better to have that possibility, that hope that it could all come together to make something more. It’s what’s going to have to sustain you for the next 8 months.