Opponent: #21 California (7-2)
When: 6:00 PM PST, Monday, December 21, 2015
Where: Haas Pavilion, Berkeley, CA
Audio: Bruin Live Audio
Video: Pac-12 Bay Area
Live Stats: California StatBroadcast
It's not often that two conference foes will schedule a nonconference game, but that's exactly what the Bruins and the Golden Bears agreed to this season.
The Pac-12's short-sighted scheduling has traditional rivals UCLA and California playing just one conference game this season, so this game has been arranged in recognition of the importance of the long-standing rivalry. It's an appealing game too, as both UCLA and Cal are nationally ranked and expect to challenge #11 Oregon State and #12 Stanford for the Pac-12 title.
By the way, to give you some idea of the strength of the Pac-12 conference this season, there are currently five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top-25 of the latest AP Poll, and another three conference teams are receiving votes. Any conference team that isn't battle-tested before the start of Pac-12 play is in deep trouble.
Like the Bruins, the Golden Bears have played a pair of ranked teams already. Unlike the Bruins, the Golden Bears managed to win one of those games. Over a month ago, California traveled to Louisville and shocked the eighth-ranked Cardinals 75-71. The key to the Golden Bears' victory was a dominant performance on the glass--California out-rebounded Louisville 50-27. The huge rebounding advantage for California allowed it to pull off the upset in spite of committing 27 turnovers.
However, less than two weeks later, Cal was thumped by #10 Texas A&M 75-58 in the South Point Tournament in Las Vegas. The following week, the Golden Bears suffered their other loss to unranked St. Mary's on the opening day of the Cal Tournament.
UCLA's two losses this season were inflicted by #2 South Carolina (68-65) and #3 Notre Dame (92-84 in OT).
Cal has a terrific starting five, but little depth behind them. But to beat the Golden Bears, the Bruins need to find a way to stop 6'4" freshman Kristine Anigwe. She's California's leading scorer, sporting an impressive 21 points/game scoring average. She's also Cal's top rebounder, pulling down 9.3 boards/game. Nearly 40% of those rebounds are on the offensive glass, so the Bruins will have to work really hard to find her in their favored zone defense.
One of Anigwe's frontcourt partners is 6'3" junior Courtney Range. Range is the Golden Bears second-best scorer (13.9 points/game) and rebounder (6.4 boards/game). She's also a threat from the perimeter, shooting 42.4% from behind the arc.
California uses a rarely-seen three forward starting lineup. The third forward in the group is Mikayla Cowling, a 6'2" sophomore. Cowling averages 12.8 points/game and is shooting an exceptional 48% on three-pointers.
The starting guards are 6'2" sophomore Gabby Green and 5'4" freshman Asha Thomas. Thomas plays with great poise for a freshman, and she's shot the ball extremely well, averaging 12.9 points/game. Green is the principal playmaker for the Golden Bears. She leads the team with a 5.2 assists/game average. California has little in the way of guard depth--both Thomas and Green average over 34 minutes/game.
Cal's big weakness this season has been turnovers. The Bruins have had trouble taking care of the ball too, but through nine games, the Golden Bears already have 19 more turnovers than the Bruins even though they play at a slower pace and have played weaker opponents.
The Bruins enter tonight's contest with a four-game winning streak, including two consecutive 30+ point wins against UC Irvine and Sacramento State. Unfortunately, the Bruins have reverted to some bad habits in those blowouts. For example, UCLA committed 45 turnovers in the past two games. Even though the Bruins are trying to play extremely fast-paced basketball, that degree of sloppiness is unacceptable.
On the positive side, Coach Close gave extended playing time to several of her bench players in the past two games. Freshman Kennedy Burke, and sophomores Paulina Hersler and Kelli Hayes were the main beneficiaries, and sophomore Lajahna Drummer saw her minutes managed as she continues to work her way back from injury.
Disappointingly, 6'4" freshman Ashley Hearn played just 20 minutes total in the two games. In my opinion, the development of Hearn is extremely important if the Bruins are going to contend for the conference crown this season. UCLA really needs a little more depth in the frontcourt, and considering that the Bruins are a guard-oriented team, it's especially important to have strong rebounders and defenders on the bench. That's where Drummer and Hearn come in. Both have the athleticism to be effective in that role, and the Bruins need to be able to rely on them if Monique Billings and Kacy Swain get into foul trouble.
The key for the Bruins tonight is the matchup between Anigwe and Billings. If either player gets in foul trouble early, it will be a huge disadvantage to the team that has to go to the bench first. In particular, if Nirra Fields and Jordin Canada are effective with their dribble penetration tonight, Cal will be in serious trouble.
This is exactly the type of game that the Bruins have to win to be a legitimate Pac-12 title contender and top-25 team. UCLA has proven that it can compete with top-5 teams, beat decent teams, and rout weaker teams. Tonight the Bruins have to show that they can beat a ranked team.