This is a game Cal would have lost a month ago. Maybe even badly.
Not long ago, Cal wouldn't have been able to win a game if they didn't significantly slow down their opponent with defense. They wouldn't have been able to overcome an iffy shooting night by outrebounding their opponent by 13. Cal certainly would have struggled to win a game in which Reshanda Gray didn't score efficiently and frequently.
But the Bears did overcome, somehow. I'll be honest - I didn't get to watch the vast majority of this game. I'll be rewatching the game on the Pac-12 network later, and maybe I'll have some insight then. For now, everything below comes from impressions based on the box score, following things on twitter, and watching the last minute or so on TV. This is the high-quality content you all pay the big bucks for!
To start off with, Cal brought one of their worst defensive games of the year just a day after I put up a post praising them for the quality and consistency of their defense. I'll take the blame for that one. Sorry for the jinx. But again, what I'm taking away from this is that Cal won a game in a way that they were completely unable to do earlier in the season. UCLA scored 1.04 points/possession, an efficiency level they have only reached against Oregon in Pac-12 play. Every other team in the conference (including Cal at Haas!) has figured out how to slow down UCLA because they only have three viable offensive threats. But for whatever reason, Cal was completely unable to stop Thea Lemberger, Antonye Nyingifa, and especially Nirra Fields. It's a bit distressing that Cal knew what they needed to do but were still unable to do it.
To make matters worse, UCLA clearly made some defensive adjustments to stop Reshanda Gray from dominating inside again. Cal's interior beast was held to a 3-10 showing from the field. When Reshanda isn't shooting well, Cal probably isn't shooting well, and sure enough the Bears finished 39% for the game.
And yet Cal still won the game. How? Rebounds and free throws. Lots of both. UCLA figured out how to defend Reshanda Gray's shot, but they didn't figure out how to keep her or Gennifer Brandon off the glass. And even if the Bears weren't finishing, their aggression got them to the line much more frequently than UCLA despite a similar number of fouls committed by both teams. Cal's aggression and +13 rebounding margin earned them 4 more shots and 13 more free throws than UCLA, and that was the difference between victory and defeat.
Another reason Cal won a game that they would have lost a month ago? Scoring balance. Cal received positive offensive contributions from six offensive players. That included some critical three pointers from Mikayla Lyles (no surprise) and Courtney Range (mild surprise!) We knew Range was capable, but she had somehow missed her first 20 attempts from distance for the entire season. That's more than a little freaky, but she regressed to the mean just in time for a critical 11 points.
Although this was an 'expected' win, it's an important one. It allows Cal to hold off ASU and OSU in the Pac-12 standings, and it sets up a big game against USC on Sunday. Cal needed to get this win against UCLA, because USC is playing good basketball and is a team that, for whatever reason, always gives Cal their A effort. Beat the Trojans and 2nd place is in sight.