BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — Rather than focusing on the daunting list of defeats in a season like no other for California women’s basketball, Archer Olson and her teammates instead decided to find the small victories from within each game.
They celebrate even the smallest signs of progress in practice, too.
That might be point guard Leilani McIntosh making strides leading the offense and looking for her 3-point shot to become a perimeter threat. Maybe it’s freshman mid-season addition Mia Mastrov gaining confidence in her ballhandling and scoring abilities. Or perhaps the post players committing to using their bodies on the low block to create high-percentage scoring opportunities.
It might be as simple as on-court communication.
“With such a young team, we are looking for growth every step of the way,” Cal assistant coach Kai Felton said. “Talking is a skill and something this team needs to continue to work on.”
Olson is the lone senior member of the winless Golden Bears, who will honor the 6-foot guard in the coming days during their final weekend of home games at Haas Pavilion. Cal dropped the weekend opener, falling in a tight game, 59-50, to No. 10 Arizona.
Olson is a former freshman walk-on who worked her way to a scholarship and is now starting for a team devastated by injury. In a rarely seen scenario, Mastrov graduated early from nearby Miramonte High School last month and enrolled at Cal given she will gain this year of eligibility back because of the pandemic.
Thrown right into Pac-12 Conference competition, Mastrov scored 20 points playing 35 minutes in her collegiate debut against Utah on Feb. 5.
“With the freshmen coming in we were always very excited for them to play a huge role. Regardless that was always the plan,” Olson said. “Potentially not to this extent.”
No, not to this extent whatsoever.
Coach Charmin Smith remembers to remind herself about perspective as she plows through each unpredictable day during her second season as head coach. She has just eight healthy scholarship players, thankful that despite the limits Cal can keep playing games at all when so many programs nationwide have opted out of the season altogether because of concerns caused by COVID-19.
“It’s been a really challenging year. I’m just really grateful I have a phenomenal group of young women who have continued to show up and enjoy being around each other. Even though the results haven’t been great, I think it’s been good for us to be together,” Smith said. “We try to put some perspective on things that this is basketball. … There’s a lot to kind of point to to help us get through a tough time.”
Smith and her staff realize the extra effort is worth it: Their players want to stick together. They depend on each other for far more than just basketball support. And Olson wanted to play her final season.
For Smith and her staff there are countless Zoom meetings, check-ins with academic support, the training staff and campus medical experts, film sessions and practice — “Just trying to survive” as Felton puts it.
By the time Smith looks up to finally catch her breath from it all after another busy day, it’s often well past dinner hour — 8:30 p.m. is a typical finish.
Cal is 0-14 overall having lost all 11 of its Pac-12 games and had nine games postponed. Yet the Bears might have played only about half that many without thinking creatively like to bring Mastrov on board earlier than planned.
“They always tell you to play like it’s your last game but I think with COVID it actually is a very real concept and something to keep in mind and be grateful for the opportunity,” Olson said.
There are just seven recruited players — healthy from the coronavirus aside from some contact tracing cases — five of them freshmen and four of those post players, with Olson and fellow walk-on Sierra Richey now on scholarship to help fill out the depleted rotation.
Entering Friday’s game against the Wildcats, they haven’t played since Feb. 7 after missing last weekend’s scheduled trip to face the Oregon schools.
Even opponents are cheering for Cal.
Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer — who coached Smith and hired her as a Cardinal assistant — has reached out offering support. USC coach Mark Trakh is a caring dear friend of Felton, who served on his staff at Pepperdine and USC.
“It’s just not easy for them and I totally empathize with them and wish them nothing but the best and health to come back and come back strong,” Trakh said. “Charmin has been doing a great job with it considering all the obstacles that have been thrown their way.”
Three potential starting guards were lost to season-ending injuries, a huge hit to both the Bears’ depth and ability to compete in a talented conference.
“It really decimated our roster,” Smith said.
Cal has found creative ways to stay connected through it all.
Smith delivered holiday gifts to her players and got everyone a copy of “Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall in Love with the Process of Becoming Great,” so the Bears could have their own book club of sorts and something to discuss as a group besides basketball.
“One of the strengths of our program is the connection and the culture, so not having student-athletes in our office every day hanging out, doing Tik-Toc videos, just spending time laughing together, that’s a big difference,” Smith said. “We haven’t been able to have those things, so that’s another piece that’s really hard.”
By next season when she’s gone, Olson knows the program will be better having gone through this.
“What I have found in the coaching profession is that the times that you really found out what motivates people, what drives them, what they are truly about at their core are the challenging times, the obstacles, the hard and painful times,” said former Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb, now an NBA assistant with Cleveland.
“What I have seen in Charmin and the women on the Cal team during this time is a commitment to one another, to the process of getting better and to staying mentally tough when it would be easier not to.”
More AP women’s college basketball: https://apnews.com/hub/womens-college-basketball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25