For 34 minutes Cal outplayed Rutgers. They looked good in transition, they played solid defense, they attacked the basket and drew fouls, and they generally won the rebounding battle. It looked like a confident, winning effort. In those 34 minutes Cal outscored Rutgers 68-54.
But for six minutes to start the 2nd half everything fell apart. In that span Cal committed TEN turnovers, and Rutgers turned a three point deficit in to a 14 point lead. That 19-2 run totally changed the game.
Obviously it's a bit unfair to cherry pick the game like that, but those six minutes were so fundamentally different from the rest of the game. C. Vivian Stringer's 55 defense is a thing of beauty for a neutral observer, with turnovers and made baskets feeding into each other in a cascading effect. Pressure creates a turnover and an easy basket, allowing Rutgers to reset the press on the inbound. You can see Rutgers gain confidence as their opponent loses confidence in their own ability to handle the ball and make smart passes. Were I not a Cal fan I might have enjoyed watching the display. But I am a Cal fan, and as such it was abject torture.
Cal very slowly regained their composure and started their comeback attempt, getting within six points with 11:12 left and again with 2:40 left. It was an impressive effort, but it again hammered home the idea that Cal isn't really a team built to make big comebacks. The Bears still aren't a great three point shooting team, and it can be difficult to take the time to work the ball inside to the bigs, which was so successful in the first half.
It was a loss, but it was a reasonable loss. I was impressed by what Rutgers can do. Monique Oliver played a spectacular game inside when she had to come up huge without much help from any other posts. She was huge on both ends of the court - scoring, rebounding and defending - and Rutgers wouldn't have won without her. And the Scarlet Knight guard depth was as good as advertised. Even when their veteran point guard Khadijah Rushdan had an off-game mixed with foul trouble it didn't slow Rutgers down.
So, what did we learn?
1. Gennifer Brandon is 100% back
Everyone said she was all the way back physically, but when you're out for a full year you can't be sure until you hit the court in an actual game. But Gen was the best post on the day. She was her usual self on the boards (15, ho hum), she ran the court with confidence, scored while under control, and even played some nice defense.
2. A big step forward for Afure Jemerigbe
Last year I kept saying 'She's so fast and strong, if she could just finish her shots . . . ' She finished them today and looked much more confident than she did as a freshman. She and Lindsay Sherbert will probably split time at the wing and they both bring different skills to the court. It should be a good combo.
3. Freshmen do freshmen things
Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Justine Hartman all made their debuts and all made plays that made me go WOW. And all three also made plays that made me go 'NOOOO!' Boyd and Gray had a combined 9 turnovers, but they also at times looked spectacular running the floor. Hartman only got limited minutes because of an ankle injury. She looked smooth and hit some nice shots but also forced a couple shots that got blocked.Most teams don't have freshmen that can come in and immediately compete against ranked teams on the road. Patience is a virtue.
4. Quiet games from Caldwell and Clarendon.
For Talia Caldwell, this just wasn't her style of game. It was fast-paced, up and down action against a press team. So it doesn't shock me to see Cal's quicker bigs get the bulk of the playing time. But Layshia Clarendon never really got involved in the offense despite playing 33 minutes. Only one basket and one assist? True, she played a role as a ball-handler and generally wasn't culpable in Cal's many turnovers. But I think we're going to need her to score against the better teams on Cal's schedule.
Perhaps it's a good sign that Cal almost won despite an off-game from our best returning scorer. Maybe it just means it will take her some time to adapt to a new role in the offense after playing with the ball in her hands for so long.
5. Once again turnovers will probably define this team
When Cal takes care of the ball they win. When they don't they lose. That's overly simplistic but it's often been the case over the last few years. When we don't turn the ball over it means we can run our offense, get the ball inside, take shots and try to get offensive rebounds - everything Cal excels at. Turnovers take that away. Rutgers is great at forcing them, but for most of the game Cal did a mildly acceptable job. If only we could have those six minutes back.
The good news? This was probably Cal's toughest non-conference game of the season and they took a shot to tie the game at the end. There isn't a team left before Pac-12 play that they can't beat.