Last year Cal welcomed Texas A&M to Berkeley and left with a hard fought loss. Cal dominated on the glass and did a good job getting to the line, though they failed to take full advantage from the charity stripe. The problem was turnovers - the Aggies held a 21-7 advantage that allowed them to take 6 more shots than the Bears. Part of the problem was that Cal didn't have many players they could trust to handle the ball, and by the end of the game only three players scored in the double digits.
OK, so technically that was a recap of the 2009 Cal-A&M matchup. But it could just as easily tell the story of yesterday's game. In many ways some of the problems have been exacerbated. Last year the Bears had Alexis Gray-Lawson, in addition to Layshia Clarendon and Eliza Pierre, to handle the ball. With Gray-Lawson off in Europe playing professional basketball no one has stepped up yet to take on that ball handling role. And again the Bears were hampered on offense because only three players provided a positive impact on that end of the floor. Let's talk about what those players did before we get into the negatives.When you look at the stats sheet you wouldn't think that Layshia Clarendon had a great game. She turned the ball over 6 times (to just 4 assists) and shot just 7-24 from the field. But her play kept Cal in the game. When the Bears were completely unable to make any kind of entry pass into the post, her ability to penetrate and attack the basket was the only offense Cal had for much of the first half. She had a variety of strong drives that resulted in layups, passes to open bigs, or offensive rebounds created by her disruptions. And 6 turnovers isn't so bad against a team that excels at forcing them when you're forced to handle the ball for every one of the 38 minutes you are on the court. An incredible burden was put on Layshia and for much of the game she heroically kept Cal close.
Denesha Stallworth and Talia Caldwell both had their usual solid games. If A&M wasn't so good at pressuring Cal's guards, forcing turnovers and denying entry passes, they likely would have dominated. On the rare occasion when they received the ball in good position they usually converted, and both adapted to the low post getting taken away by moving to the high post and occasionally making strong moves to the basket. And as usual their rebounding was a key for the Bears.
That was all well and good, but the problem is that Cal didn't get many contributions from anywhere else on the team offensively. Lindsay Sherbert started off the game with a nice, open three pointer and took just one more shot the rest of the game. She didn't have a great game by her standards on the boards, and this was easily the quietest she has been so far in her career. Rachelle Federico, Rama N'Diaye and Mikayla Lyles weren't on the court long enough to have a major impact (though Rachelle hit a nice jumper and got to the line to give Cal one last chance at a comeback).
The real problem was that Eliza Pierre was off her game on offense. She uncharacteristically only finished with one rebound and consistently learned the hard way that A&M wasn't allowing the ball into the post - there were way to many passes to a double teamed Denesha Stallworth. Still, per the usual Eliza made two of the most spectacular plays of the game on defense, including a brilliantly instinctual steal as the lone defender on a 2 on 1.
It is important to note that the final score isn't indicative of how close the game was. Cal was only down 7 with 4:30 to play, but they went into a high risk full court press in a desperate attempt to force turnovers. Texas A&M calmly broke the press and forced more turnovers as Cal ran their offense as fast as possible. If Cal had chosen to play out the game the final deficit would likely have been single digits.
As for the stat of the game, that's clear. Cal surrendered 12 more turnovers and that gave A&M a 26-4 advantage in fast-break points. That's a 22 point advantage in a 16 point game. A&M's system is successful not just because turnovers deny their opponent a chance to score. It also is how A&M gets their easy points. When Cal forced the Aggies to run their half court sets they were distinctly unsuccessful.
So what do we take away from this game? For one, I really wish we were healthy. I don't know if our sophomores can handle playing 35+ minutes a night per game during the Pac-10 schedule. Losing Avigiel Cohen might have been a secretly damaging blow because she was likely to be our 3rd ball handler. Sherbert and Jemerigbe are more off guards - used to playing off the ball. Cohen ran the point in major international tournaments and was set to be a back up point guard. Would it have made the difference yesterday? Probably not, but it would have been nice to have seen what Avigiel could have done. Meanwhile, Gennifer Brandon was another low post option - her size and length and jumping ability might have been an added dimension to open up the inside. And you can never have enough rebounding!
But for now I'll take this game for what it was - a learning experience for the freshmen and proof that Cal can hang with top 10 teams on the road, even with an extremely short bench and extreme youth. Not every road game will have a few thousand cadets making noise. Regroup and Go Bears!