First, Brittany Boyd came to the court out of uniform, meaning that she wasn't going to play. Later, Gennifer Brandon and Mikayla Lyles picked up leg injuries that required ice and kept them off the court for the majority of the 2nd half. Finally, Afure Jemerigbe picked up an ankle injury, but gamely stayed in the game for the final minute. By that point, Cal only had eight fully healthy scholarship players, four of which rarely receiving meaningful playing time.
And despite all of that Cal might have won with kinder rims or better free throw shooting.
It's a loss that is easy to understand and easy to forgive. At least, I'm hoping that the selection committee sees things that way when they look at Cal's resume. With a fully healthy team (which, we have every reason to suspect they will have when the NCAA tournament begins) this is probably a relatively routine win. The Bears didn't have their full team and still very nearly won the game.
When I arrived at Haas and was told that Boyd wouldn't play because of a knee injury sustained against Washington State, I mentally prepared myself for a painful offensive performance. All things considered, Cal actually did fairly well. If you are going to be without your all-everything point guard, better it be against a team that doesn't force a ton of turnovers or play high intensity pressure defense. That's Washington. Cal's turnover rate for the game was 17.6%, which is actually slightly less than a normal game. I was very impressed with the job Mercedes Jefflo and Afure Jemerigbe did in place of Brittany Boyd.
Of course, simply avoiding turnovers does not a good offense make, and that's where Boyd's absence hurt most. While fans will at times bemoan Boyd turnovers, it's her risk-taking style that creates so many good looks for her teammates. Without that element, Cal was very much reduced to 3 point shooting and isolation plays. The rare occasions when Cal tried to enter the ball into the post did not go well.
Jemerigbe continued her recent run of excellent games behind a hot shooting night from behind the arc. Frankly, I wish she had been even more decisive, or that the coaches ran even more play for her, isolation or otherwise. She was Cal's best player by a mile that wasn't being double covered, and her ability to stretch the defense and get into the lane kept the offense afloat.
And of course, UW did everything they could to stifle Reshanda Gray. At times they would have a post player behind her and a guard fronting her, simply to prevent her from ever touching the basketball. That level of attention certainly opened up space for her teammates, but it's tough to keep an offense going when Option 1 isn't playing and Option 2 is being blanketed.
Boyd's absence hurt on defense as well. UW's guards were simply too successful getting into the paint for layups, and having Boyd as a perimeter option would have been invaluable. Cal's defense didn't really excel until Brittany Shine was inserted into the game for the final 12 minutes after injuries to Lyles and Brandon. A lineup of Jefflo, Jemerigbe, Shine, Range and Gray really slowed down UW's offense, but the Bears couldn't score quite enough to complete the comeback.
Free throws and unkind rims really hurt the Bears. In the first half, no less than 4 shots from deep (three from an unlucky Mercedes Jefflo) seemed to fall halfway down before rimming out. Still, while the Bears can bemoan some bad luck from the field, they have nobody to blame but themselves for going just 10-21 from the line. Just a few more free throws and Cal would have been playing offense trying to take the lead late, rather than trying to overturn a 5 point deficit in the final minute.
Would Boyd have played if Cal needed this game to secure 2nd place, or if they were on the tournament bubble? Perhaps. But thankfully the Bears had already clinched the 2 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, where they will play the winner of the 1st round game between Washington State and (I think) Oregon. At this point in the season it's much more important to protect the health of your players for the elimination games to come.
What we saw against Washington was that while basketball without Brittany Boyd isn't something we want to experience any time soon, they've got enough fight to compete anyway.