When Cal was rather easily pulling away from BYU in the 2nd half I thought back and realized that Cal had played four postseason games at looked progressively better in each game. They barely survived overtime against UC Davis, beat Utah by 10, beat Oregon by 14, and beat BYU by 16. As Cal's WNIT opponents have gotten tougher, the margin of victory has gotten wider. Coach Boyle sums it up well:
Things happen for a reason. If we had crawled into the NCAA Tournament and then get waxed in the first game, not that necessarily would have happened but it could, you don't get the four games that we got so far and going into our fifth. There is always a trade-off. Would we have loved to be in the NCAA Tournament? Yah, but this has been great for us to have to travel and understand what it is to go deep into March. And all the playing time and the rotations. It has given the seniors just a different...they're all contributing now. In a lot of ways, it has really unfolded nicely for us. I believe things happen for a reason. It has been a good thing.
And an even better sentiment? Just ask Alexis Gray-Lawson:
I won my last game at Haas. That is what I am thinking now. I won my last game at Haas. All of my friends and family are here. Everybody came out to support us tonight. And I am on my way to my first Final Four. Can't beat that!
The entire team - coaches, seniors, freshmen - have seized on the NIT as an opportunity to end 2010 in the right way. Lexi, Natasha and Lauren wanted to end their final season as winners. The freshmen are getting a first hand education in post-season basketball. And in the process they've been playing some of their best team basketball of the year, winning their last three games against quality competition with relative ease.Cal vs. Oregon
In my Oregon preview, I presented the nightmare scenario that I feared would end the season:
This might not be the best time to play a team that likes to play an extremely fast tempo for 40 minutes. This will be Cal's 34th game of the season. The 5 freshmen are presumably at the tail end of the longest, most intense season in their careers thus far. Alexis Gray-Lawson is still less than two weeks removed from a multi-day stay in the hospital. And the team had only 48 hours to get to Eugene and prepare to play after their last NIT game.
I was worried that a tired team would get run off the court by a motivated Oregon team playing at home. And for the first 17 minutes it sounded like just that. Oregon raced to a 35 to 23 lead and the end of the season seemed near. With the Bears on the ropes, who would they turn to? Alexis Gray-Lawson, of course! Lexi nailed a three and a jumper, and Layshia got a layup just before halftime and Cal was right back in the game.
Cal carried that momentum into a dominating 2nd half. Cal fell behind in the first half because Oregon was hitting their 3's (6-17) and Cal wasn't dominating the glass (21 rebounds for each team). In the 2nd half Cal fixed their defense and clamped down on the boards. Cal's 29 rebounds to Oregon's 15 limited Oregon's offense and the Ducks only hit two 3's, and none in the last 18 minutes of the game. Add it all up and Cal ended the game on a 48-22 run! And my worries about Cal's energy level? Well, I may have had it backwards:
Oregon Senior Guard Taylor Lilley: We gave them a good fight in the first half, and I think we just ran out of gas in the second half.
Cal vs. BYU
Thanks to open seating in the entire arena, aee07 and I arrived a good hour in advance and managed to grab 2nd row seats behind the scorer's table. While watching Cal warm up, I was impressed with how loose and team seemed - players were smiling, joking and having fun. When warmups ended, Lauren Greif gave what looked like a quick speech while the team huddled. The Bears were ready. CalBear81 met me for the game, and I added some of her thoughts from the game to mine:
DeNesha led the Bears to a quick 12-2 lead and Cal looked like they were going to put the Cougars away early. Although our seats were excellent, we were surrounded by some surprisingly angry and vocal old blues. One of them actually yelled 'Get in the game, DeNesha!,' - at that exact moment she had 7 of Cal's 12 points. Somebody behind us was very insistent that every BYU player was traveling on every play, and pretty much everybody wanted Eliza Pierre to shoot the ball every time she was open, despite the fact that the deep jumper just isn't a part of Eliza's game yet. Sigh.
Talia Caldwell didn't rack up the points, but her play impressed me, particularly in the first half. She doesn't have the hops of Gen Brandon or the speed of DeNesha Stallworth, but she's really strong and she always seems to be in the right place for offensive boards. And on at least two different occasions she received the ball in the post and made great passes to DeNesha out of a double team for an easy Cal basket. That's the kind of teamwork and court sense that the freshmen hadn't fully developed for much of the season, but we've been seeing it from all of them in the NIT.
But right after Cal jumped to the early 10 point lead, BYU started hitting their 3's. The Cougars would finish the 1st half with 5 , the last of which tied the game at 28. CalBear81 adds: "Cal got a little bit lucky, because BYU had an awful lot of shots that just didn't quite go in. If BYU's shooting had been just a little bit better, the game could have been very different."
Cal really had difficulty defending the 3 in the first half, and BYU could have easily hit more than the 5-12 they shot. A Natasha Vital 3 and a Lexi layup gave Cal the 5 point halftime lead, a lead they would not give up again.
The only real difference in the 2nd half? Defense. Cal dominated the boards and got their points for the full forty minutes. But in the Cougars only made one 3 in the 2nd half and rarely got an open look. Cal forced more turnovers, and the rout was on.
As soon as Cal opened up their lead to double digits the Cougars really seemed lose the intensity they would have needed to mount a comeback attempt. As CalBear81 noted to me: "BYU must have been exhausted, having to play three games in three different states in a period of five days. In that respect the WNIT is much more grueling than the NCAA."
Cal's performance, considering the rather grueling schedule and a trip to Oregon and back, has been impressive in their consistent energy. If anything, Cal has gotten stronger in the 2nd half of each game. I don't know if we can chalk that one up to youthful energy, better conditioning, or voodoo magic, but I like it. It meant we got to go home with this receipt:
All that and I got to meet CalBear81, plus a quick visit with CalNet, BearStage (make sure to check out his excellent photos and videos if you haven't already), BearBallCarrier and friends. (Sorry guys, I really should have saved some seats for you too!)
Player of the game vs. Oregon: Alexis Gray-Lawson
This was a tough, tough decision. DeNesha shot 9-15 from the floor (eFG of 60%). Lexi shot 8-16, 5-6 from three (eFG of 65.6%). DeNesha pulled down more boards and drew more fouls, but Lexi had more assists and turned the ball over less. The tie-breaker? Defense. Since I couldn't see the game, I can't be totally sure, but I'm pretty confident that Lexi guarded Taylor Lilley for the majority of the game. Lilley was coming off of a 38 point explosion vs. New Mexico, hitting seven 3's in the process. Against Cal? 3-18 and 2-12 from behind the arc. While shutting down a star player like Lilley is ultimately a team effort, Lexi's all Pac-10 defense was undoubtedly a huge factor in Cal's improved 3 point defense in the 2nd half that powered Cal to what was ultimately a comfortable victory.
Player of the game vs. BYU: DeNesha Stallworth
DeNesha controlled this game from beginning to end, with only a brief break at the end of the first half when she picked up her 2nd foul. Whenever she got the ball with good position on the block, it was almost guaranteed points from a quick layup or hook shot, or from the line (10-16 from the floor, 6-9 from the line). She was so dominant that when she got a short rest in the 2nd half I expressed my disappointment that she was removed from the game. Aee07 quickly reminded me that as a 17 year old her minutes needed to be limited to avoid violating any child labor laws.
But she sure didn't play like a 17 year old. The highest praise I can offer DeNesha is that she's starting to remind me of Ashley Walker. Like Ashley, DeNesha doesn't overwhelm you with size and power, but she combines an impressive variety of intelligent low post moves with an increasingly solid mid-range game. And also like Ashley, she hits her free throws in the 75% range, an incredibly valuable skill for a player who will be drawing many fouls over her Cal career.
Various Cal news that doesn't fit anywhere else
Both CalBear81 and Bearstage alerted me to a story on Brenna Heater and her decision to leave Cal, and as it turns out, basketball. The quick summary is that Brenna suffered her 4th concussion of her basketball career and wasn't sure if hoops was her passion any more. Her honesty about her life priorities is to be commended and CGB thanks Brenna for her work this season and wishes her the best in beauty school and life.
Also a hat tip to BearBint who posted this Ashley Walker related news on Bear Insider. I, of course, have no idea what level of competition there is in Israel, but averaging 20 points and 8 rebounds a game and winning league MVP sounds pretty sweet to me. I'm still working under the assumption that Ashley will be back in Seattle for the start of the WNBA season and will hopefully be given the chance to contribute to the Storm. For now, congrats to Ashley on your domination of the holy land!
Her team, Maccabi Ashdod, lost the first game in the three game title series vs. Electra Ramat Hasharon. Good luck in game two (and hopefully a game three) Ashdod!
In Cal recruit news, Afure Jemerigbe and
Stacey Lindsay Sherbert were named to the McDonald's All-American team and named to the 2nd and 3rd teams of Parade's All American teams. Afure contributed 14 points and 9(!) steals to help lead St. Mary's to victory in the California Division III title game. I'll try to take a closer look over the summer at what Afure, Stacey, and Mikayla Lyles will bring to the Bears in 2011.
What's Next: Cal (22-13) @ Illinois St. (28-7) - Thursday, 5 PM PST
The Redbirds beat UCLA. That's all a Cal fan needs to hear to know that Illinois St. is dangerous. Admittedly, it was very early in the season before Jasmine Dixon, UCLA's best player, was eligible for the Bruins, but it's still an impressive victory. ISU also had narrow losses to DePaul and Iowa, two more NCAA teams. They then blew through the difficult Missouri Valley Conference with only 3 losses, with one unfortunately in the conference tournament. Frankly, they have a profile of an NCAA at large and according to ESPN were probably one of the last teams out. If Cal continues their recent level of play they can absolutely advance to the WNIT finals, but it will take a strong effort in every phase of play to do so. There will be a deeper look at what ISU does well in the gamethread preview on Thursday.
The best news we Cal fans could get? Illinois St. will be streaming the game for free! Hopefully the Redbird announcers aren't too homeriffic.
Go Bears! Beat the women from Normal, Illinois!