Well, that was unexpected.
Nothing that has happened over the past few weeks (or, really, the entire season) indicated that the Beavers would be able to take Cal to the absolute limit. We were looking at two teams going in opposite directions. OSU had lost nine straight, five by double digits. Cal had won twelve in a row, seven by double digits.
So imagine everyone's shock when the Bears found themselves losing, 28-11, with just three minutes left until halftime.
During that first half, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Shots went in and out. Rebounds were fumbled out of bounds. Every 50/50 call went in OSU's favor. When Cal played 30 seconds of great defense, the Beavers hit a prayer 3 point bank shot. Every single Cal mistake was punished. When asked about it, Lindsay Gottlieb described things pretty well:
. . . I thought it was more of them being good than us being not ready. I mean, we were ready; we had shots rim out, they had everything go in. They were tough. They had a great scout, they knew what they were doing and we faced major adversity. There have been other games where little things like we miss a couple of shots and then we get stops, or a team is hot and we are scoring with them. This was the first time that we were not scoring, they were scoring and all of a sudden we are looking at a 17-point deficit . . .
Cal closed to within 12 at the half with a 7-2 run, but for the first time in a while Cal fans had to face the tangible fear that the Bears might actually lose. During the break, we all joked that the rims on the south end of Haas were cursed. How else to explain so many shots that went halfway down before coming back up? How else to explain the 6th ranked Bears shooting 26% from the field while the Beavers hit six 3s?
Some of it can be explained by tipping your cap to Jamie Weisner, a potential Pac-12 freshman of the year who played brilliantly. Mollee Schwegler, a senior who averages 5 points a game, had the game of her life from the field. As most teams do, the Beavers packed the paint and held Cal at bay in terms of post scoring and, at least for a little while, rebounding.
How did the Bears come all the way back? Aggression on offense, aggression on defense. I won't go as far to say that the Bears were passive in the first half, but the Beavers certainly took the game to them. In the 2nd half, the Bears found an extra gear, and it showed. It showed when Brittany Boyd forced back-to-back turnovers that led to four fast break points. It showed from the foul line, as the Bears attempted 24 second half free throws. And it showed with a defense that finally slowed down Oregon State, particularly from behind the arc.
It was a slow, steady comeback. Boyd's back-to-back steals cut the deficit to five, but the impressively resilient Beavers immediately built it back up to 10. Cal wouldn't tie the game until 7:45 was left in the game, and they wouldn't take the lead until the 5:46 mark. And the Beavers still kept coming. Cal wasn't safe until a deep 2 pointer that would have sent the game to overtime bounced half way down the rim on the south end of Haas before coming back out.
The player of the game was undoubtedly Layshia Clarendon. Cal can do lots of things on offense. They love to establish a post game before anything else. Brittany Boyd can always create instant offense. Mikayla Lyles and Afure Jemerigbe can get hot from deep. But the reason that Layshia Clarendon is the MVP of this team is because when nothing else is working, they can give her the ball and she will go to work.
I've never seen Cal just hand her the ball and let her break down the offense herself so frequently. But it was absolutely the right decision. She finished with 26 points, 18 of them coming in the second half when the offense was "give the ball to Layshia, set a screen, and maybe grab a rebound if Layshia actually misses." It worked to perfection.
And the Bears survived. Losing to Stanford at Haas. Overtime vs. UCLA. A 16 point deficit against Colorado. A 17 point deficit to Oregon State. The Bears haven't always done things the easy way, but somehow they have made it to the final weekend of the season in position to capture at least a share of the Pac-12.
Should Cal fans worry that the Bears struggled to put away the 2nd to last place team in the conference? Only if you thought we should start printing National Champions! T-shirts after Cal blew away UCLA at Pauley. We know what this team is capable of at their best, and we know what can happen when they aren't. We just have to trust the players and coaches to be prepared when it's crunch time in March. If nothing else, they certainly have a flare for the dramatic, even if it's torture for fans in the process:
CALIFORNIA SENIOR Layshia Clarendon
On the game
Well, I'm a little bit in shock still, but we got the win. It feels good and I figured, `way to give them a show going out, rather than giving them a "boring game" going out.' It felt good to have the fans. It was loud. It was like they say back East where you feel the crowd, and I think that it affected them toward the end as well. It was a fun environment to play in.