Sports are weird. All season long, deep in the back of my mind, I thought that the Bears would lose a game to a Pac-12 team other than Stanford. I never explicitly predicted that it would happen in large part because I didn't want it to come true. But you could see it coming. When every team attempted increasingly exaggerated strategies to stop Cal inside, you wondered when somebody would finally succeed. When Cal fell behind by double digits but came back, you thought it would just be a matter of time before they would dig a hole too deep.
But Cal just kept winning, perhaps against the odds. And they kept doing it for so long that I finally erased that nagging little voice in my head that said that this run wasn't sustainable, that eventually, circumstances would conspire to end it. Cal handled UCLA so soundly that the game seemed as forgone as a match up of top 15 teams could be. The Bruins were hurting, with multiple injuries and iffy performances entering the game. And then they played their best game of the year to win easily. Shockingly easily.
As a fan, the rationalizations begin. I'd certainly rather the Bears lose now, against UCLA, than in the NCAA tournament. And realistically, this game constitutes a missed opportunity rather than a crushing blow. Entering the Pac-12 tournament, the Bears were projected as a 2 seed. When the seeds are announced, Cal will be a 2 seed. That's still awesome.
And yet, missing that shot at Stanford, ceding the unofficial title of Best in the West to them again, hurts. It doesn't diminish what Cal has accomplished, it doesn't impact their ability to win in the tourney. But it hurts. Stanford sets such a high level of excellence that it means opportunities to best them are very rare. I think Lindsay Gottlieb is well on her way to leveling that playing field, but at the same time there is no guarantee that this chance comes again.
For those fretting that the loss means a) the Bears have lost their momentum b) the Bears are playing poorly at the wrong time or c) UCLA has revealed some sort of fatal flaw that will be exposed in the tournament, I would advise calm. To address the first two points: Last year, Cal ended the Pac-12 tournament with a disheartening blowout loss to Stanford. That didn't stop them from beating Iowa with ease and then giving Notre Dame their toughest game before they faced UConn in the final 4. In 2008 the Bears lost a heartbreaker to a mediocre USC team, but still bounced back to make the Sweet 16 and give #1 overall UConn a tougher game than anybody expected.
To address the final point: UCLA did the same thing everybody else does. Playing zone, packing the paint and focusing on transition defense are hardly unique strategies. It seems that the Bruins executed that strategy better than anybody else this season, but nothing new was revealed. And the reason UCLA was able to execute it so well? For one, they're clearly the 3rd best team in an excellent conference. And they have the advantage of having faced Cal twice already, an advantage that nobody Cal will face in the tournament will have.
So yeah. It was a perfect storm of badness. The Bears fell behind, and employed a strategy that would work against lesser teams - an all-out press defense desperate to create turnovers. And while it worked a few times, it also gave UCLA easy baskets they wouldn't have been able to get otherwise. And UCLA earned that lead. I was critical in the past that the Bruins didn't go to Markel Walker enough, as she's the only player that Cal doesn't have a good matchup with. They finally did, and she responded with a dominating 10-13 shooting performance.
Meanwhile, the Bears launched 24 3 pointers against the UCLA zone, and most critically went 0-11 in the first half. You would expect Cal to make 3 or 4 based on their season percentage, which would have Cal down by a vaguely manageable 10-12 points instead. Every team gambles that Cal won't make 3 pointers often enough. UCLA was the team that won that gamble, which is a shame because they happen to be one of a small handful of teams good enough to take advantage if they win the bet.
So. It was frustrating. But it's better than losing our share of the regular season title (which, as Charmin Smith would be right to remind us, can never be taken away) and, for me at least, is strangely better than losing to Stanford. And it's muuuuch much better than losing in the NCAA tournament. It's a chance for the players and coaching staff to rededicate themselves and re-prepare for the very annoying strategies that everybody employs against our Bears.
And in case you doubt how good UCLA is? As I'm writing this they're up on Stanford in the 2nd half, and playing absurd defense on Chiney Ogwumike. They are no fluke. Probably a 3 seed in the tourney. Update: Stanford won, but had to hit crazy shots to do it.