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Originally published February 6, 2014 at 8:00 PM | Page modified February 6, 2014 at 8:17 PM

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Cal women struggling as they visit Huskies

California, a Final Four team last season, has lost three of its past four games and finds itself in the middle of the Pac-12 race with Washington and several other teams.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Lindsay Gottlieb is mostly calm in her most challenging season.

“But maybe I sweat more at practices or get out of practices more exhausted,” said Gottlieb, in her third season leading the California women’s basketball team.

After making the program’s first Final Four appearance last season, Gottlieb is in the midst of juggling a stalled offense, player departures and losing three of the past four games. Two were to No. 4 Stanford in the Bay Area rivalry, while the other was an upset against USC.

The starkly different No. 23 Cal team is returning to Alaska Airlines Arena, where it clinched a share of its first Pac-12 regular-season championship last season by defeating Washington. The Bears (14-7, 6-4) play the Huskies (13-9, 5-5) at 8 p.m. Friday on the Pac-12 Networks.

Washington is one game behind Cal in the conference standings. Washington State is tied with Cal in fourth place, setting up a heated weekend in a Northwest cold-snap.

“Last year we had this unique group where everyone was returning and we were singularly focused,” Gottlieb said. “This year we have more moving parts.”

Freshman guard Hind Ben Abdelkader left the team this week to return home to Belgium. Senior forward Gennifer Brandon took a personal leave earlier this season but has since returned.

“You’ve got to remember this is a team that was playing in the Final Four last year,” first-year Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “But ... they know how to get themselves out of it and sometimes when you go through adversity, you come back stronger. Having a player leave the team can sometimes rally a team together. ... If we spend one second thinking of them as vulnerable rather than being the Final Four team from last year, we’re not going to stand a chance.”

Washington is a threat with its offensively skilled backcourt in junior Jazmine Davis (19.4 points) and freshman Kelsey Plum (19.8), with senior Mercedes Wetmore as the floor general.

Neighbors altered his team’s schedule to practice only once a week, using the other days for rest, treatment and individual workouts. The Huskies are 4-2 since the change, including last week’s first sweep since 2002 of the Los Angeles teams. “This is the weekend where it’s time to show up and play,” said Neighbors, whose team hosts Stanford on Sunday. “Last weekend built some momentum and confidence. We know how fragile confidence can be in February in this league, so I’m glad we have some confidence going into the week.”

The Huskies are limited to nine players, but all are healthy for the first time this season. Sophomore wing Heather Corral, who hasn’t played since December, decided this week to undergo knee surgery and seek a medical redshirt season.

The Huskies have lost their past three meetings against the Bears. But Gottlieb can’t remember a swing through Washington as a head coach or assistant where a win was easy.

“When you look at what Washington State has been doing and as hot as Washington can get, it’s as hard as it has ever been,” Gottlieb said.

So, excuse the sweat.

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