With 1:50 left in overtime I started thinking about how to describe Cal's two home games against UCLA and USC, and settled on something along the lines of 'living the charmed life.' Cal beat UCLA despite 21 turnovers in part because the Bruins barely hit 50% of their free throws. Cal seemed poised to somehow beat USC because the Trojans missed seven free throws in the last seven minutes and the Bears hit a miracle three. It looked like the Bears were going to survive two games in which they only intermittently played up to their own abilities against two teams that have given them constant fits.
Then their luck and composure suddenly deserted them. It took just about every little thing going a certain way in the last minute for Cal to tie the game. It took everything going the exact opposite way for USC to somehow surmount a seven point deficit in under two minutes. It happened because a freshman point guard averaging 5 points, a 32% field goal percentage and a 24% three point percentage when absolutely unconscious.
It's a weird position to be in - I felt that Cal was profoundly lucky to be in overtime, but then became profoundly unlucky to lose. When you add up everything that happened in both games a split is probably what the Bears deserved, but it's hard not to look at the play-by-play against USC and wonder what might have been if Cal's two best perimeter defenders didn't foul out, or what might have happened if Talia Caldwell and Reshanda Gray don't have to play with four fouls, or what might have happened if the refs don't call a dubious offensive foul on Layshia Clarendon with 18 seconds left.
The good news is that, while frustrating, this isn't a debilitating loss for the Bears. Cal should still finish 2nd in the conference, they're still on track to make the NCAA tournament and USC has a solid computer profile despite their recent struggles. If you had told me that Cal would go 2-1 against ASU, UCLA and USC I probably would have taken it, because as talented as Cal is they're still inexperienced and it's a little unrealistic to expect them to pillage through the non-Stanfords of the Pac-12 without any slip ups.
The loss hurts on a psychological level more than a logical level because of how it ended and because it's USC, purveyors of nightmares and inflictors of cruel defeats. If Cal takes care of business by winning four of their last five we'll all put the loss behind us very quickly . . . although I reserve the right to complain about flashbacks if Cal draws USC in the Pac-12 tournament.
Other scattered thoughts from the weekend
1. I think it's not unfair to say that Cal goes as their guards go. The posts will get their points and their rebounds every game, even against Stanford. But the Bears won't win if Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon combine to shoot 12-49 with 18 turnovers like they did against UCLA and USC. Cal escaped against the Bruins because of excellent defense (and UCLA miscues) and almost escaped against USC for the same reason. But we know how well the duo can play - Clarendon and Boyd were the difference makers against Stanford - and they'll need to be at their best in the post-season.
2. Gennifer Brandon is amazing. I still find it a little odd that she's not starting, although the issue is moot because Gen, Talia Caldwell and Reshanda Gray are all going to get at least 25 minutes if they stay out of foul trouble. Her fast break basket against USC wowed me, in part because I thought she picked up her dribble waaaaay too soon . . . but her two steps took her miles and she exploded upward for an easy lay-in. She does things that very, very few college players can do.
3. I finally managed to make it to a pre-game chalk talk before the USC game. Charmin Smith talked about how Cal planned to defend USC, and talked about specific strategies to stop Ashley Corral from getting open 3s and stopping the post duo of Christina Marinacci and Cassie Harberts. Cal executed exactly what Smith talked about for the majority of the game, and the result was that Corral only attempted one three (a miss) and USC's posts went 5-19 from the field after scoring 46 against the Bears in L.A. It's got to be frustrating for a coach when your team executes the gameplan and it's still not enough. In this case credit has to go to USC coach Michael Cooper and USC's other players for adapting to Cal's game plan and taking what the defense gave them.
Cal will take their final road trip of the season to Oregon to take on the Ducks and the Beavers. Cal has always matched up really well against the Ducks ever since Paul Westhead took over and Oregon hasn't beaten Cal since 2008. But the Beavers have been on a roll with six straight wins, three by double digits. A sweep would be a pretty solid achievement and would virtually clinch the 2nd seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
These games also are noteworthy because they should represent the last two games that Cal fans won't be able to watch prior to the debut of the Pac-12 network. It's a long overdue development, but it's coming just in time for fans of up-and-coming Cal women's basketball. Go Bears!