A major part of basketball is style, and your ability to dictate it. Utah has some weaknesses, but if there's one thing they know how to do it's to impose their style of play on their opponent. They did it to Cal twice last year, and they did it again tonight. The game was slow, the defense was strong, and for long stretches both teams struggled to score. But ultimately Cal hit more shots, made more free throws, and pulled down enough rebounds to escape with the win.
Cal seemed poised to pull away for good multiple times, maintaining a lead somewhere between 6 and 13 points for about 20 minutes. Utah pulled to within 4 points a few times within the last 2:30 of the game, but the Bears finally decided to hit their free throws when they needed them most to hold on.
The biggest moment? Utah had two chances to cut into a 4 point lead, but the Bears played almost a full minute of brilliant defense to maintain the lead. When Talia Caldwell finally pulled down the defensive rebound, only 1:05 was left on the clock and Utah was suddenly forced to foul. Cal went 6-8 from the line the rest of the way to seal things up, despite Utah's persistence. In an ongoing story unlikely to change, the Bears missed opportunities to pull away at the line. The Bears only went 8-16 from the line prior to the final minute, and those misses left the door open for Utah's near-comeback.
That the Bears won despite missed free throws is largely due to their effort on defense. The Utes had their 2nd worst offensive game of the year both in terms of total points and points/possession. Cal's interior defense (particularly against the prolific Taryn Wicijowski) was excellent, and Utah only shot 33% from inside the arc. I can't pick any one player to pick out as particularly impressive - as tends to be the case when you play good defense, it was a team-wide effort. But Cal's guards did a good job disrupting Utah's offense and they forced Danielle Rodriguez into a season-high 4 turnovers.
Afure Jemerigbe led the charge on offense in the first half, consistently getting past her defender to finish easily in the paint. In the 2nd half Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon both hit some big 3 pointers to keep Cal's struggling offense afloat, then hit free throws to seal things.
Nobody will get excited about a win over Utah, but it was still critical for Cal. That they did so despite foul trouble for Brittany Boyd, and despite getting very minimal contributions from the posts, and despite not dominating the boards like they usually do.
Colorado is up next, and as of this writing they're struggling badly with Stanford. With the possible exception of the L.A. trip, this might be the toughest road swing the Bears will face this year, and a sweep would be huge before Stanford comes to town. One down, one to go.