Last year, Layshia Clarendon, Brittany Boyd, Gennifer Brandon, Talia Caldwell and Afure Jemerigbe combined for 178 out of a possible 180 starts. It was an incredible run of sustained health and performance, and it culminated in a Final Four.
Obviously Clarendon and Caldwell departed after graduating. But on Sunday the Bears were without the services of Gennifer Brandon, who is out indefinitely to attend to a personal matter. And Brittany Boyd didn't score a point in 14 foul-filled minutes. The Bears were essentially down to two players who regularly contributed throughout last season.
And they were fine.
The Bears defeated Northwestern comfortable, 65-51. They did it because Reshanda Gray and Afure Jemerigbe stepped up in the absence of their teammates. And it didn't hurt that three freshmen stepped up to play 85 total minutes of solid two-way basketball.
I know Stanford comparisons are typically verboten, but it's a pretty high compliment to say that Reshanda Gray reminded me of an Ogwumike. She faced constant double and triple teams, body blows, hand checks, shoves, and anything else Northwestern could dish at her. The Wildcats even switched their defense specifically to stop her. At points it seemed like Cal's guards would just throw the ball randomly into Reshanda's general direction.
And damned if she didn't overcome it all and dominate the game. 23 points on 12 shots, 10 rebounds, and countless fouls drawn to help deplete Northwestern's already thin rotation. She's so strong that contact doesn't seem to impact her in the slightest.
Afure Jemerigbe dealt with the same Northwestern physicality, and still played the most aggressive game I've ever seen from her. It didn't result in great finishing from the field, but she also drew a ton of fouls with her calculated drives into the paint, and hit nine free throws to record 16 points.
As of right now, we don't know when Gennifer Brandon will be back playing basketball. I hope it will be soon, because that means that Gen will have resolved her personal matter, and because, selfishly, I love watching her play basketball. But if it's not, Cal fans saw exactly what they would want to see from Reshanda Gray and Afure Jemerigbe. They attacked and scored relentlessly against a team that knew they were the primary options.
Meanwhile, Cal's freshmen will be asked to continue to step up in a big way. Courtney Range, and particularly Hind Ben Abdelkader and Mercedes Jefflo were asked to step up again. And while it was hardly a perfect performance (the trio combined to shoot 8-21) they showed that the offense and defense wouldn't completely fall apart with three freshmen on the court simultaneously. I think it will be pretty rare to only get 14 minutes out of Brittany Boyd, but it's good to know that Cal can survive in such a scenario.
Ben Abdelkader was particularly impressive. Asked to run point for significant stretches, she was cool and composed, and hardly looked like a freshman. In a game marred by turnovers from both teams, her 2:1 assist to turnover ratio looked particularly impressive, and I can't recall any poor decisions with the ball. Mercedes Jefflo also looked solid in a ball-handling role, although I would say that she impressed more with her 3 point shooting and defense than anything else.
It's defense that won the game for the Bears, as Northwestern shot just 31% from the floor. Perhaps the biggest key was that Cal was able to play defense without fouling nearly as often as Northwestern. And for a change of pace, the Bears took advantage of Northwestern's physicality by hitting 17 of 25 free throws!
Cal will have five days to rest before heading to Reno for a two day tournament over Thanksgiving break. With a thin rotation for the foreseeable future, they'll need all the rest they can get.