Cal's run to the semi-finals couldn't help but make me wonder what might have been. The team that rolled through the Galen Center last week would never have lost 5 total games to Washington, Washington St. and Oregon that collectively cost the Bears 3rd place in the Pac-10 and a potential NCAA at-large bid. But the possibility of making the tournament had long since faded, so the more important question is if the way Cal finished the season by competing with Stanford before defeating Washington and Arizona St. is an indication that the Bears can turn the corner next year.
And in that regard the Bears showed Cal fans something, and that something was defense. Two opponents held below 50 points and 37% field goal shooting, and with at least 18 turnovers forced. It's become pretty clear that this Cal team isn't going to have a consistent offensive attack - their ability to shoot from game to game is completely unpredictable. So if they want to win games when that offense isn't doing much they're going to have to defend like their lives depend on it. It's encouraging that the Bears did just that - won two games when shots weren't really falling.
Now, defense alone isn't enough to beat the truly elite teams, as was ably demonstrated by UCLA in the semi-finals. But those elite teams won't be found in the WNIT bracket, so let's see if Cal can build on what little momentum they carry out of Los Angeles.
Cal 58, Washington 48
I talk about rebounding all the time, but I'm still astounded at what the Bears do on the boards every so often. This game was one such example. Consider that in the last five minutes of the game until the last 30 seconds, Washington only attempted three shots. In the meantime, Cal pulled down eight rebounds, seven of them on the offensive glass. They didn't even need to score to ice the game - they just needed to grab the ball, dribble for 30 seconds, miss a shot and get another rebound. It was actually rather boring, and they certainly didn't earn any style points. But I'll take a win over exciting style points every time, and I'd bet the Bears would too.
In the first half it was feeling like another let-down game, particularly when 44% free throw shooter Regina Rogers sank two from the line to tie the game before the break. It was a completely ugly 25-25 deadknot. And it didn't look much better seven minutes into the half with Washington up 37-33. But one, extended, 25-11 run later it was over. The Huskies only managed two field goals over the last 13 minutes of the game. I don't know what finally clicked for Cal on offense. Probably a combo of Layshia just hitting a few shots and Washington getting tired and fouling in frustration. I don't really care, because after 107 minutes of losing basketball to Washington, that beautiful 13 minute stretch felt pretty good.
Cal 48, Arizona St. 43
I really wish I could've seen this game, because the defense sounds truly spectacular. No disrespect intended towards Washington, but the Huskies aren't known for great offense. Arizona St., on the other hand, are usually pretty dangerous, and they'll be playing in the NCAA tournament. Doing to them what Cal did is impressive. The Sun Devils turned the ball over 5 more times than they put the ball through the hoop. Dymond Simon, ASU's leading scorer by a wide margin, finished the game 1-10 from the field with just 6 points.
As best as I can tell from the box score the Bears had a pretty good offensive approach - they got the ball down low to Stallworth and Caldwell when it was available, and they combined for 17 points on greater than 50% shooting. Afure Jemerigbe showed another flash of talent - she might be the best slasher on the team. And Layshia built on a good finishing stretch against UW with a 40 minute, 22 point performance and the game clinching free throws - after missing those same free throws in the game that sent Cal's season into a tailspin. It's not a performance that gets Cal into the tournament, but it's still a measure of redemption, and hopefully a boost of confidence for Cal's bellweather performer.
UCLA 63, Cal 50
I have even less to say about this game because, as mentioned last week, the Pac-10's tournament format is silly and nearly precludes meaningful results that can be analyzed as representative of anything. Arizona gave up 100 points to a Stanford team that hasn't been playing their best basketball. A Cal team that had won three of four never really competed against the Bruins - UCLA opened up a 15-20 point lead, maintained it for most of the game, then let up at the end as they emptied the bench. Layshia Clarendon willed the Bears into the semi-finals and played 76 total minutes in the previous two games. She went 0-6 and picked up four fouls in 29 minutes against UCLA, which is the stat sheet definition of an exhausted player.
Interestingly, I've heard that the reason the Pac-10 made the chance is because they wanted to give NCAA bubble teams a chance to pick up two wins. That theory didn't really work this year, as bubble team USC lost to Arizona and Arizona St. lost to Cal. Granted, the Sun Devils made it anyway, but I see no real evidence that the current format would do any more good than bad for Pac-10 bubble teams. So thank goodness for the Pac-12, if only because it will necessitate a change in the tournament format. Hopefully the conference office gets it right this time.
The Cal-Poly Mustangs, that's what. Game time has been announced as 7:00 PST down the coast in San Luis Obispo. We'll have a preview of the Mustangs in Thursday's game thread, but suffice to say that Cal should probably be solid favorites, at least if they play like they did in the Galen Center.
After winning the NIT last year with four freshman starters I'm sure Cal fans and the team itself both expected more this year, and it's not unreasonable to be disappointed. The excitement of so much young talent made everybody gloss over the loss of Alexis Gray-Lawson (and to a lesser extent Natasha Vital and Lauren Grief). The magnitude of that loss became very clear as the season went along, but the disappointment doesn't mean that the WNIT isn't a worthwhile endeavor once again. Regardless of the value of playing the games themselves, this is a team that can use another few weeks of practice.
And if the Bears are as talented as we think they are, then there isn't really any reason to think that they can't make another deep run. Hey, it's not the NCAAs, but that doesn't mean it can't be fun.