Looking back on a senior class that took Cal from a first-round NIT exit all the way to the Final Four.
Another season has passed, and that means that we must wish a fond farewell to another group of Bears who were absolutely critical to a four (or, in Gennifer Brandon's case, five) year stretch that saw the program hit its lowest point in the last nine years to reaching the absolute pinnacle of women's basketball. In the process they gave us indelible moments on and off the court. It's been a joy following their careers. I'll remember countless aspects of their time at Cal, from the specific to the general, but here's what I had to say about each player at their best, either on the court or off:
Simply put, the best rebounder I have ever watched at the collegiate level, no qualifications. Hell, she might have been better at rebounding than any other Cal basketball player has been good at any particular single basketball skill. And that ability was most notable in one of the most thrilling wins of the 2012-13 season:
Cal had one thing that USC didn't have: Gennifer Brandon. Her performance rescued Cal in a 71, 63, come-from-behind overtime victory.
Brandon is the best rebounder in Cal history, and it's not even close. I refer to her rebounding stats constantly in part because they always blow me away. If she played 40 minutes a game she would average 16 rebounds a game. When she is on the floor she rebounds 24% of the missed shots. For every 4 shots that miss, she will grab the ball once. She's probably the best rebounder in the country.
Today, she pulled down 26 rebounds, tying a school record. The Bears needed every single one of those rebounds, particularly the final rebound in regulation, in which Gen corralled Layshia Clarendon's missed jumper for the put-back to tie the game. That basket was the final shot to erase a 6 point deficit with just 1:42 left in the game. In that last 1:42, Gen pulled down 3 rebounds, stole a pass, sank four free throws and of course hit the tying basket. It wasn't ALL Gen Brandon, but it's as close as you can come in a game with 5 players on the court.
A jack-of-all-trades type of player. Foo never wowed you with one particular skill, but she did just about everything on the court well. She could drive and score, she could shoot open jumpers, she could defend and handle the ball when needed. Even better, she gradually got better at just about everything throughout her career, culminating in a stretch when she stepped up to carry Cal's offense when teams were almost triple teaming Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd had a bum ankle:
But how about Afure Jemerigbe? Cal's 3rd scoring option has continued her brilliant run of games with what I consider to be her best all-around game ever as a Bear. She did quite a bit of everything all over the court. She scored 16 points on only 11 shots despite not really having her jumper going. She handled the ball well and dished out a game high (and, I would assume, career-high) seven assists.
Most of all, she played one of the best defensive games of her career. She spent most of the game chasing around Cal-killer Ariya Crook, who scored 34 points at Haas in the most painful defeat of the season. This time? A paltry 10 points on 25% shooting. During Cal's decisive run to start the 2nd half Foo came up with two monstrous blocks of attempted Crook layups, one of which led to a Brittany Boyd fast break layup that pushed the lead to 16.
It was such a confident two-way performance from a player who has deferred to other (admittedly very good) players for the majority of her career. Perhaps stepping up against Arizona State with a hobbled Boyd helped give Jemerigbe the confidence she needed. Either way, she's become a major option for a team that already has two players most teams struggle to defend.
A shooter who earned herself more playing time by working hard and improving her ability to work within an offense and to play solid defense. Her ability to keep defenses honest and to space the offense opened up opportunities for the rest of the team, and yet she will likely be remembered just as much for her off-the-court work. That and having the game of her life against Cal's biggest rival, when they needed it most:
If the Bears brought the same level of execution to the court and just mixed in a few good jumpers, the possibility of winning, even at Maples, was there.
All it took was Mikayla Lyles. This was Lyles' biggest performance of her career by far, but I can't say I was completely shocked. Lyles has never played major minutes - she's basically been an occasional zone buster. The coaches have always raved about her shooting ability, but I think what was always holding her back was her defense. Well, that concern looks to be a thing of the past, because she played excellent defense to go along with her ability to knock down shots. Also, she tweeted this just prior to the game:
Her first 3 pointer gave Cal their first lead of the game, 15-14. Her last 3 gave Cal a 9 point lead.
Would Avigiel Cohen have become a regular contributor if she hadn't suffered a major knee injury prior to coming to Berkeley? I have no idea. When you play the same position as Brittany Boyd, playing time isn't in abundance. But Cohen made the most of her time in Berkeley:
In case you hadn't already heard, Cal's own Avigiel Cohen is a nominee for the 2014 Allstate Women's Basketball Coaches Association Good Works Team, better known as the AWBCAGWT for short. 84 players nationwide have been nominated, and in February 10 finalists will be announced.
What has Ace done to get nominated, one might ask? I'm glad you did!
· Serving on the board of the Cal Athlete Gay Straight Alliance (CALSAGSA).
· Remaining active in the Jewish community both in Berkeley and across the entire UC system. She is currently one of three students to serve on the 20-person board of the Berkeley Hillel.
· Establishing the system-wide UC Jewish Alumni Group, and one of the first reunions was held at the Sheraton Hotel in Tel Aviv in July.
I cannot express how happy I am to see how women's basketball players have embraced LGBT causes over the past few years.
This senior class will leave behind a legacy that includes three tournament appearances, six tournament wins, one conference championship, three top-two Pac-12 finishes, and more than their fair share of unbelievably memorable games. I'd say that we'll miss them, but they are Bears forever, after all. Thanks seniors!