January 9, 2024 

Is Cal turning a winning corner?

Smith: 'We're exponentially better'

The lesson for the Cal Bears this weekend wasn’t based in X’s and O’s. It wasn’t statistical or analytical. It wasn’t anything that showed up on a white board. It was all in the W.

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“We are learning to win,” said head coach Charmin Smith, her team off to the program’s best 15-game start since 2016-17.

A home sweep of the Washington schools — two teams that have made brief appearances in the national rankings this season — for the first time since 2018-19 gives Smith something tangible to go on. At 12-3, this is the foundation that Smith has been trying to lay since she took over in 2019, and then endured injuries, illness (including COVID cancellations), struggles and transfers. Cal has won a total of 10 conference games over the past four seasons and last played in the NCAA Tournament under Lindsay Gottlieb in 2019.

The Bears have had moments, glimmers really, over this difficult stretch. But nothing as sustained as this weekend’s conference results suggest is on the way.

“I don’t even remember a moment last season,” Smith said.

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Last weekend, meanwhile, was full of them. First for Cal last weekend came a 70-57 over Washington on Friday night, handing the Huskies just their second loss of the season. That was followed on Sunday by an overtime win over Washington State, 73-72. It was a game in which the Bears’ depth allowed them to weather foul trouble and beat a Cougars team that won last year’s Pac-12 Tournament and has made the NCAA field three years running. Ugonne Onyiah grabbed three offensive boards and scored after each one during the overtime to seal the win.

“These are tournament-caliber teams,” Smith said. “So we have to feel good about that.”

The catalyst of late has been guard Ioanna Krimili, the graduate transfer from San Francisco, who scored 21 points in each game, in just her second and third games back from injury.

Krimili was a three-time All West Coast Conference player at USF, who averaged 18.0 points a game across the Bay with 276 career 3-pointers.

Tennessee transfer Marta Suarez can play inside and out, and finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds against Washington State. Leilani McIntosh averages 11.1 points a game as the veteran floor leader. The Bears have nine players averaging double figures minutes.

This team is an interesting mix of size inside, depth across the board and offensive talent. It is a team of players who have never been asked to be “the one” on their previous teams, but are taking turns in that leading role now.

Smith isn’t used to depth. During the COVID seasons, she could barely put a team on the floor some nights.

“Right now, I have 10 people I can put in the game and I’ve never had that before,” Smith said. “I’m actually trying to figure out how to get people enough minutes and let them get into a flow. That’s the biggest reason we are so different.”

That and the number of shooters that Cal can bring on to the floor, a change from previous years when a dominant player like Kristine Anigwe or Jayda Curry took care of most of the scoring.

“We have shooters at every position aside from the five, and then we move Martha to the five and then we have five shooters on the floor,” Smith said. “There are people that we know can knock down shots. And, you know, we’ve got better defenders. Last year, we were in the three hundreds in terms of our defensive ranking, like utterly one of the most pathetic teams in the country, and we’re exponentially better.”

Just how much better will again be tested. Cal is on its way to one of the toughest road trips in conference play, the Mountain schools with Colorado on Friday and Utah on Sunday.

But the Bears enter this trip as confident as they have been in a while, with good reason. And the hope that a postseason could include them feels realistic. Cal currently has an NCAA NET ranking of 47 and a RealTime RPI ranking of 24.

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Success, Smith has told her team, is defined by continued progress. Stagnation won’t do. Nor will a letdown against the No. 5 Buffaloes or the No. 19 Utes after a weekend that could define the program’s new direction.

“The thing is just like getting over that hump and being able to close out games,” Smith said. “It also showed me that they’ve got grit and toughness. We could have easily decided to lay down in the WSU game but they just showed me a no-quit factor and toughness that you know, I hoped was there but it’s good to see when it gets confirmed that it’s there.”

Written by Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith has covered women's basketball nationally for nearly three decades. Smith has worked for ESPN.com, The Athletic, the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as Pac-12.com and WNBA.com. She was named to the Alameda County Women's Hall of Fame in 2015, is the 2017 recipient of the Jake Wade Media Award from the Collegiate Sports Information Directors Association (CoSIDA) and was named the Mel Greenberg Media Award winner by the WBCA in 2019.

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