Cal has looked great all season at home, but USC and UCLA probably make up the two best teams to come to Haas outside of Stanford, and they were arriving at the worst possible time. Cal's back-to-back losses to Washington and Washington St. made for what must be the worst week in the Joanne Boyle era. When you're down the last thing you need to to play teams with the speed and scoring ability of a USC or the relentless team defense of a UCLA. It was a recipe for disaster.
So earning a split was a mini victory in and of itself. But it was the way that Cal won and the way that they lost that was most important. As soon as Cal got swept in the northwest this season became less about rankings and high tournament seeds and more about learning and growing. After having to openly question the effort and desire of the team twice in the last three weeks, Coach Boyle said, " . . . I am proud of how they came out and fought and competed against a top-10 team. I think they understand they can play in scenarios like that." For my part, I never really expected the Bears to beat UCLA. The Bruins are just that good this year, and their strengths play right into Cal's weaknesses. But Cal's play in the second half made me a believer, and I watched the last 11 minutes of the game thinking that they just might pull off the upset. It didn't happen, but the fact that it could have happened is what is important. Maybe, just maybe, this team has their mojo back.
Cal 82, USC 71
After a first half that saw Cal shoot a stunning 8-14 from three, I thought they were in huge trouble. That insane barrage of 3's only earned them a four point halftime lead, and I was sure that unless they continued a clearly unsustainable shooting hot streak that USC would surge ahead. And sure enough, Cal went just 1-4 from three in the 2nd half . . . and ended up winning by eleven. How did they do that? By playing much better defense, by continuing to hold onto the ball, and by playing their best offensive half of the season directly after their best offensive half of the season. But in the 2nd half it wasn't the long ball - it was open mid-range jumpers and layups from Cal's typical offense, run to perfection against a suspect defense.
DeNesha Stallworth had another excellent game against her favorite opponent, but it was Layshia Clarendon who did everything for the Bears, filling up the stat sheet to the point that she approached a triple double with 17 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. And the best news? Those 7 assists weren't enough to lead the team for the game. Eliza Pierre nipped her with 8. Defenders are always going to hang off of Eliza towards the key, but if she can learn to use that extra space to find open teammates they may have to reconsider. You don't have to be a good shooter to be dangerous with the ball in your hands.
UCLA 64, Cal 55
It was better than the first half at Haas against UCLA in 2010, but not by much. Pretty much everything I was afraid of happened. The Bears couldn't find open shots, possessions were rushed and the ball ended up out of bounds or in the hands of UCLA defenders too often. Only UCLA's own poor play (12 turnovers, many unforced) kept the game close. I was not optimistic about the 2nd half.
My pessimism seemed well founded after two straight turnovers to open the half. But then a funny thing happened - the Bears started executing against an elite defense. They got the ball inside to DeNesha. They created contact and drew some fouls. They pushed when there was space and they pulled back when there wasn't. Ball handlers stayed calm and always seemed to make the right decisions. A 14 point UCLA lead gradually dwindled all the way down to 4. If Layshia Clarendon doesn't miss the front end of a 1 and 1, or Eliza Pierre converts the and-1 free throw, I might be writing a very different recap right now.
From a confidence standpoint, this game should be huge. Layshia Clarendon and Eliza Pierre should know that they can break down any defense outside of Palo Alto now. DeNesha Stallworth knows she can drop 20 points on anybody. Granted, we fans already knew they could do that, but Joanne Boyle's comments indicated otherwise. Now the challenge is to take that confidence on the road.
Road trip! Cal beat Oregon three times last year, twice by double digits. Oregon St. is a shell of a program and still has no Pac-10 wins. The Bears have already beaten Arizona and Arizona St. in rather convincing fashion. That's the optimistic point of view. For the pessimistic point of view there is only one fact that matters: The Bears are 1-4 away from Haas. Something's gotta give, and I'm hoping it's the road demons. The optimist in me says the Bears go 3-1, and the pessimist is having trouble deciding between 2-2 and 1-3. The only thing I can guarantee? Matt Court will make your eyes hurt.