Ohio St. 77, Cal 75: Epic Game Ends In Heartbreak

Samantha Prahalis (pictured here against UConn) was even better than advertised against the Bears.

They were all going in. They had gone in all game. When Cal absolutely has to get 2 points, they can run an impressively effective ‘play.’ Give the ball to Gennifer Brandon, let her use her athleticism to get a shot off. If it misses, the strategy is simple: EVERYBODY GET A REBOUND. That wouldn’t work for most teams, but most teams don’t have as many offensive rebounds as their opponents have defensive rebounds. The Bears got three good shots off inside the last five seconds. I thought for sure they were all going in, but none of them did.

What a game. When I previewed Ohio St. I wondered if the Buckeyes were perhaps paper tigers – undefeated because of a weak schedule rather than actual team quality. Ohio St. passed the eye test with flying colors in an enthralling game at Haas Pavilion.

At halftime I thought that Cal had played one of the best halves of basketball I had seen from them since the Walker-Hampton-Gray-Lawson era . . . and they were losing by 5 points. It was a truly spectacular 20 minutes of basketball with pinpoint offensive execution on both sides. And the high score wasn’t the result of poor defense – the offense was just that good. It reminded me very much of the first half of Cal’s NCAA tournament game against UConn.

Ohio St. started off playing man-to-man, and Cal destroyed it. The Bears scored on 10 of their first 12 possessions, and one of the failed possessions included three shots from point-blank range. But Ohio St. switched to a zone that generally prevented easy entry passes to the post and slowed down the lightning quick play Cal had been getting from their perimeter players. It didn’t stop Cal from scoring, but it made it much more difficult.

For the Bears, the defensive game plan looked simple enough: Do everything to slow down Samantha Prahalis. Cal did everything that could be reasonably expected – whenever possible their best defender on the court shadowed her, they did an admirable job denying her the ball, they changed defenses in an attempt to confuse her . . . and Prahalis still did it all. It was a virtuoso performance, and if Ohio St. ever gets on national TV again this season I’ll tune in just to watch her.

What was impressive about Ohio St. beyond Prahalis was the spacing and shooting of everybody else on the court around Prahalis. They could hand the ball off to her, let her run around like a dervish around the court, exhaust Cal’s defenders, eat up 25 seconds, then find an open shooter with a great pass at the last second. Ohio St. made shots both open and contested, and it was incredibly frustrating. On multiple occasions the Buckeyes hit shots with the shot clock horn sounding at the ball was in the air – it was the only open shot they got the entire possession, but it still went in.

The second half couldn’t possibly live up to the standards of the first half, and execution slipped for both teams. Frankly, both teams seemed a little tired after going all-out to start the game. Cal started turning the ball over, Ohio St. missed shots they made in the first half, and the game slowed down behind tired legs. But even when Cal fell behind by as much as 14 on multiple occasions, it seemed like the Bears had one more run left in them.

It came in time to turn a 12 point deficit into a 2 point deficit in just three minutes. Unfortunately for Cal, that comeback came just inches short.

Other scattered post-game thoughts:

Gennifer Brandon

Holy crap. 24 points, 24 rebounds, in ‘just’ 33 minutes.

People that tall aren’t supposed to be able to jump that high. Most players her height or taller get rebounds because they’re bigger – not because of a huge athleticism advantage. She’s got the height and the hops and the combination is special.

But she was always able to translate those talents into elite rebounding. Against Ohio St. she translated it into elite scoring at well. And she doesn’t need perfect low-block position to get her points – she can receive a pass towards the free throw line and explode past defenders in two long steps.

Two plays I loved: The first was a routine offensive board and put back, except she is one of a handful of players in the nation who could make it look routine. Ohio St. had a player in front of her and behind her, both facing the basket, both looking for the rebound. The rebound came high, Gen jumped what seemed like a foot higher than everybody else, plucked the ball away from the Ohio St. player with position, came down, elevated again, and lightly tossed the ball into the hoop. So smooth.

The second: Her and-1 basket that brought Cal within 2 points after the free throw – not because the basket was so incredibly impressive, but because of how she and the rest of the team reacted. The emotion and passion that Lindsay Gottlieb brought to this team has been embraced by the players, and you saw it in that one play, when the reserved, shy Gennifer Brandon let out a primal scream as basically the entire team mobbed her.

Dammit, I was so sure we were going to win at that moment!

Free Throw Shooting

Much of the angst after the game was aimed at poor free throw shooting, and not without cause. The Bears shot just 20-38 from the line, and missing 18 freebies hurts when you lose by 2. (As an aside – were I an Ohio St. fan I have a feeling I wouldn’t have been pleased with the way this game was called by the refs – I felt like the Bears got bailed out a few times. There – now I have cart blanche to complain about every other game that isn’t called in our favor!)

Here’s the thing: this team isn’t good at shooting free throws, and I doubt that will change meaningfully this year. The Bears are shooting 59.3% from the line (323rd in the nation). Last year the Bears shot 62.9% (306th in the nation). The year before it was 66.2%, even with Alexis Gray-Lawson taking so many free throws. This just happens to be a skill that isn’t a strength for most players on the team.

If you want a great free throw shooting team, then you’ll need to recruit different players. Right now Cal is arguably the best rebounding team in the nation. Recruit great shooters and Cal probably isn’t nearly as good at rebounding. But bad rebounding doesn’t tend to elicit the same type of visceral, painful reaction to watching missed free throws.

The coaching staff is undoubtedly working on the problem – I saw one of the drills they run when I briefly attended one of the open practices, and running was involved as a consequence. They know, and they’re working on it. I’m not really expecting a sea change at the line, but if things don’t improve I can guarantee you it won’t be from lack of effort.

What’s next?

A Tuesday night game against Dartmouth closes out the non-conference season, giving the Bears more than a week to prep for the Los Angeles road trip to start conference play.

Both the Bruins (5-4) and the Trojans (4-5) have struggled, but both are plenty dangerous, especially USC, and especially on the road. The Trojans were picked to finish 2nd in the conference but struggled against an absolutely brutal non-conference schedule that included four teams that are currently ranked – with three of those four games on the road.

A split is a must, but considering that Jackie Gemelos tragically injured her knee again in USC’s 1 point loss to Texas A&M, it can be argued that the Bears should expect a sweep. If the Bears do manage to win twice down south it will be a strong statement that Cal is the biggest challenger to Stanford this season.

From an NCAA tournament perspective, Cal is actually in pretty good shape entering the conference season, in large part because the Pac-12 looks a little deeper than usual. Last year the conference had four teams with an RPI lower than 150, but right now only Utah is below 107. The conference as a whole is 4th in the RPI, ahead of the SEC and the ACC. What it all means is that if Cal takes care of business in conference a spot in the tournament shouldn’t be a major doubt.

So go take care of business, Bears!

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