Layshia Clarendon rose to the challenge to lead Cal to a season sweep over USC. - USA TODAY Sports
Cal's guards shoot their way past USC's packed in defense, and the Bears are now four wins away from a Pac-12 title.
I can only speculate about how the players feel, but for me that was the least fun win of the season to watch. Let's be frank: When Cal comes to play, USC plays anti-basketball. On defense, they pack all five players into the key and let our guards shoot whenever they want. In the 2nd half it seemed like their basic offensive strategy was to run at our players and hope for a whistle. I hate watching games when Cal's opponents play like USC does.
And the refs made it worse. For the record, I don't think they impacted the game in favor of one team or another. But they did call 48 fouls in 40 minutes, and a healthy percentage didn't need to be called. USC was determined to muddy the game up, and Cal wasn't going to back down. It didn't matter how many fouls were called, neither team was going to change their style of play. And so we saw more attempted free throws than made baskets.
But as ugly as the game was, it's still immensely satisfying to watch the Bears walk away with a win despite USC's extreme efforts to stop them. And the reason is because Cal's guards came up big. Cal's four post players combined for just 16 points. And it's not because they played poorly or couldn't hit easy shots. They only attempted 14 shots.
So the burden naturally fell to Brittany Boyd, Layshia Clarendon, and Afure Jemerigbe. USC dared the guards to hit shots. So they did. The trio combined for 49 points on an eFG% of 53%. It's one thing for teams to sag a bit off of Eliza Pierre and Brittany Boyd. But I've never seen a team sag off of every guard. After getting destroyed by Gennifer Brandon, Michael Cooper and the Trojans were bound and determined to prevent it from happening again. They did, but probably at the expense of actually winning the game. You really think that giving Layshia Clarendon and Afure Jemerigbe constant open looks is the way to go?
The Bears started the game off red hot from behind the arc, and six first half threes earned them an early double digit lead that was maintained for almost the entire game before USC made it tight in the closing minutes. But the Bears were able to maintain their lead in part because they shot free throws better than the Trojans, which is a pretty major surprise. USC's season percentage is 69%, nearly 9% higher than Cal. Didn't matter. The Bears shot a bit better than normal (65%) and USC shot a bit worse (61%) and as a result the final minutes were significantly less stressful than they could have been.
And while Cal's bigs were unable to help by scoring, they still dominated the boards. Brandon, Gray and Caldwell combined for 25 rebounds, and Cal won the rebounding battle by 11. That's impressive considering how many players the Trojans sent into the paint in an effort to neutralize Cal's biggest advantage.
Defensively, the Bears did enough. It would have been a great performance were it not for the fouls that allowed USC to stay close from the line. I'm torn about how much the players should or shouldn't adapt to the refs. On one hand, you don't want to play the same way if you know it means you'll foul out in 15 minutes. On the other hand, you have to match your opponent's physicality and it's tough to play differently than every other game, and differently from what the coaches expect.
One player who did impress on defense was Justine Hartman, who clearly looks more comfortable on that end of the court. She picked up two blocks (frankly, I thought there were one or two more) and was a big piece of the puzzle that held Christina Marinacci and Cassie Harberts to 8-28 shooting from the field. She's still a bit foul prone, but one of the calls was pretty bad and USC attacked her constantly, so it was a very encouraging step forward for a player who needed to come up big with her fellow posts mired in foul trouble.
And in the end it was another close but mostly comfortable win. Cal fans were all justifiably nervous about the Los Angeles road trip, but Cal ended up beating both UCLA and USC on the road in more convincing fashion than they did at home. That's a great indication of how much the Bears have improved as the season has gone along, and I'm talking about both the coaching and the players.
Next week brings the Oregon schools into Haas, and for us fans the week should be less about worrying about wins and losses and more about honoring Cal's departing senior class. Just four more games are left in the regular season, and the Bears are still perfectly poised to achieve everything they set out to achieve.