Layshia Clarendon did everything in her power to keep Cal right with Notre Dame Tuesday night.
If you told me prior to the game that Notre Dame would win the rebounding battle, attempt 33 free throws and force 23 turnovers, I would have told you that the Bears were going to lose by 35. Yet Cal didn't lose by 35 - on the contrary, they looked just as good as the #4 team in the country for the majority of the game. Unfortunately, the Irish took over the game with a 23-6 run that covered the first eight minutes of the 2nd half, and the Bears just weren't quite able to climb back into the game.
This story is supposed to focus on the Bears, but it's hard not to talk about what Notre Dame was able to do. Devereaux Peters was a beast inside, easily the best offensive rebounder Cal has faced this year. Natalie Novosel knows how to goad the refs into calling a foul better than Jorge Gutierrez, and she rebounded like a forward in Notre Dame's 4 guard lineup. And Skylar Diggins . . . she's just really really smooth. She makes elite speed look effortless.
I guess what I'm trying to say is this: Notre Dame is a very talented team (duh) and they played quite well, and yet the Bears played well enough that they made a game of it throughout. Only five teams this season have played Notre Dame closer than the Bears played them, and four of those teams received a two seed or higher in the NCAA tournament. The Bears played a near-elite game against a legit elite team, which then begs the question: Is Cal set up to be one of those elite teams next year?
They certainly looked like they had elite players at points yesterday. Layshia Clarendon fought through constant body bumps and hand checks to finish with 17 points, and the fact that she was only sent to the line once is criminal. Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray didn't win their battle with Peters, but they didn't lose it either, as both nearly recorded double-doubles. On the rare occasions when Brittany Boyd was able to get into the offensive flow between fouls she showed the same ability to penetrate despite facing a top 5 defense. And particularly in teh first half, the entire team played aggressive, disciplined defense. Perhaps most importantly, none of the Bears looked the least bit intimidated by the Irish or the atmosphere in South Bend. They believed they belonged and more or less proved it.
One of the major storylines of the 2012 season was how tantalizingly close Cal came to the breakthrough win, and yesterday's loss fits right in with that narrative. The losses to Rutgers, Texas, Ohio St., Stanford, and finally Notre Dame - they all should provide the Bears with both confidence and motivation.
Confidence, because the Bears have proven multiple times that they have the talent to hang right with any team in the country and the confidence to play their game against anybody. Overtime in Maples, a tie game at halftime in South Bend - what, do we need to send the Bears to Waco to prove their mettle?
Motivation because the Bears still have a number of areas in which they need to improve if they want to finally turn those close losses into wins.
Can the Bears improve their offensive execution to the point that the pressure defenses run by teams like Rutgers and Notre Dame don't force Cal into a glut of turnovers? Can Cal continue to improve defensively, so that even elite point guards like Sammy Prahalis and Skylar Diggins struggle? Can Cal improve their jump shooting and free throw abilities so that teams can't get away with packing the paint and hacking at will?
I see no reason to doubt them. The Bears will likely enter the 2013 season with significantly higher expectations - pre-season rankings, individual accolades, perhaps even rumblings of a possible conference title challenge. If the Bears take what they've learned against the best this season and use it to get better they have the pure talent and coaching to reach or exceed those expectations.