The final margin of victory doesn't do justice to how well the Bears played in their first round victory over the 9 seed Iowa Hawkeyes. Cal finished with a +12 rebounding advantage, forced 18 turnovers, shot 30 free throws and generally controlled the paint throughout. Five players finished in double figures as Cal's impressive depth in talent showed through.
But the star pupil is undoubtedly Brittany Boyd, who completely took over in the 2nd half as Cal slowly stretched a 7 point lead into a 16 point advantage. A few late 3s made the score look better, but make no mistake - Cal forced Iowa to play the way they wanted them to play and the game was never in serious doubt during the last 20 minutes.
Boyd's stat line is a study in versatility. 15 points, 4 rebounds, 6 steals, 8 assists and just 2 turnovers, and it's that lack of turnovers that might be the most impressive number. Boyd didn't play restrained - she was her usual bundle of energy, careening around the court whether or not she had the ball in her hand. She'll always play on that borderline between chaos and control - it's what makes her special and exciting. That she harnessed everything without giving the ball away is huge.
Of course, it was more than just Boyd. Layshia Clarendon had her usual mid-range game going early when Iowa came out hot, and hit her free throws down the stretch to kill any Hawkeye comeback hopes. Gennifer Brandon came out on fire in the 2nd half, and along with Reshanda Gray constantly caught Iowa by surprise in transition. Eliza Pierre is the best 5'7'' shot blocker I've ever seen and was her usual pest on defense. And Talia Caldwell quietly did everything down low on both ends, finishing one rebound short of a double double.
Three things stood out to me that I wasn't necessarily expecting:
1. Forced turnovers - We know that Cal has success with occasional presses off of made free throws, and we know that Eliza Pierre and Brittany Boyd are gifted ballhawks. But Cal typically doesn't force a ton of turnovers and the stats say that Iowa is a pretty solid ball-handling team. But Cal dialed up the ball pressure throughout, did a good job crowding passing lanes, and generally made life miserable for Iowa on offense. True, Cal's aggression occasionally gave Iowa easy baskets on backdoor cuts (and credit to freshman point guard Samantha Logic for her 11 assists). But Cal's defense was huge in part because . . .
2. Dominance in transition - Cal was able to play their way in part because those forced turnovers allowed the Bears to run. And run they did. Reshanda Gray and Gennifer Brandon were consistently open over the top as Iowa's bigs just couldn't keep up with their speed and athleticism. Layshia and Brittany were constantly off to the races and the court just seemed wide open for all of them.
3. Three point defense - Iowa typically shoots a ton of three pointers. But against Cal they only attempted 14, meaning about 23% of their field goal attempts were outside the arc. And 4 of those attempts came in the last two minutes when they were forced to chuck them up in a futile attempt to come back. The best way to stop 3 pointers is to not let your opponent attempt them, but it's something that Cal has struggled with most of the season. They didn't have a problem today. Without one of their main offensive weapons the Hawkeyes were always going to have trouble keeping up.
The bottom line? Cal beat Iowa with pure athleticism. Iowa kept it somewhat close because they're a good shooting team. But Cal's speed and size meant that Iowa was only going to score with perfect offensive execution. Meanwhile, Cal could score by simply beating Iowa down the court or beating them up in the paint - as evidenced by Cal's 67.5% shooting on 2 point shots. If Cal has an average day from 3 this game is a blowout.
Notre Dame is up next (as of this writing, they're up 27-12), and Cal won't be able to out-athlete the Irish. But conversely, Notre Dame won't be able to out-athlete Cal. We'll have more on Notre Dame as Tuesday afternoon draws nearer. For now, revel in a very satisfying win. Go Bears!