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Cal Women's Week in Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy

In their most Jekyll and Hyde week of the year, the Cal women beat USC in perhaps their strongest team effort of the year, then promptly lost to UCLA in one of the most painful offensive games you’ll ever see. Since I went to the UCLA game and my wife got a number of good pictures we’ll spend most of our time analyzing that game. But stick around ‘til the end to read about the USC game – that win was as awesome and cathartic as the UCLA loss was ugly. If you don't want to read about it, at least watch this great video produced by the athletic department that shows off game strategy, offensive rebounding, and everything the Bears can do offensively when things are working:

Now, on to UCLA: Determined to get better pictures this time around, I approached the ticket office and requested the best reserved seats they had. They handed me seats in section 1, row BB. When we reached them, we quickly realized that we had bought tickets that traveling UCLA fans hadn’t purchased. So we had the luxury of a great view and the interesting insight of being within hearing distance of the UCLA bench.

We also had to deal with the hardcore UCLA fans. Most were fine, if a bit overzealous, but their knowledge was kind of creepy – they knew the first name of refs! And yelled at them personally! Also, one guy yelled "MISS" at the top of his lungs right when any Bear released a free throw, which just sounds awkward when your team is on the road. Plus, he kept doing it even when Cal was shooting meaningless FTs at the end of the game with UCLA up 14. Kinda lame, dude.


I think I spent 90% of the game watching two Bruins guard 1 Bear

When trying to decipher Cal’s struggles there is a critical factor to keep in mind – UCLA is a very well coached team. Too often as fans we only analyze the performance of our team and discount how different opponents impact their performances. UCLA plays incredibly disciplined defense, and they had a great game plan. UCLA played a token full court press that accomplished one main goal – it frequently took 5 to 10 seconds for Cal to start their half court offense, leaving them perhaps only 20 seconds to get a good shot. Once Cal finally crossed half court they constantly harassed Cal’s guards, and every single time Alexis Gray-Lawson got the ball on the wing two players would immediately trap her. We sat two rows behind the UCLA bench and during every timeout Nikki Caldwell was working with her players on their trapping defense. The Bruins prevented entry passes to our bigs, they prevented most dribble drives, and contested nearly every shot. As long as Caldwell is at UCLA playing the Bruins is going to be a miserable experience.


Nikki Caldwell effectively plots how she'll ruin my Saturday

Having said that, Cal did not make the tall task of beating the UCLA defense any easier on themselves. The game was littered with overthrown passes and wild shots. Coach Boyle had this to say after the game:

Offensively, I felt we were scared. We didn't want the responsibility. We had players hide. We had players not show up. We got out-toughed.

That pretty much hit the nail on the head. When Cal players received passes, it seemed like most of the time their instinct told them to get the ball to someone else’s hand as quickly as possible. There wasn’t much of an attacking instinct. When a player did get the ball in a position to shoot the shots were incredibly rushed and generally well off target. The half court offense was so stagnant that Coach Boyle went to an aggressive full court press in the 2nd half. It succeeded in creating transition opportunities for Cal before UCLA could set their defense, but it also allowed a reasonably disciplined Bruins team to occasionally break the press and get their own easy baskets.


Good defense --> transition offense

The one weakness to UCLA’s defense is that it can be overly aggressive at times and the Bruins tend to commit too many fouls. Early in the game Cal wasn’t totally out of sorts on offense and exploited this to get to the line. The UCLA fans we were surrounded by were outraged at the referees, but the plain fact is that UCLA’s spectacular defense comes with the price of more fouls. But as soon as UCLA’s defense got into Cal’s head (maybe 7 or 8 minutes into the game) Cal stopped attacking and drawing fouls.

So I suffered through two hours of painful basketball while being surrounded by UCLA fans gleefully doing their chants over the fight song they stole from our band. Such are the risks of college fandom, particularly when you're watching a team with 6 freshmen against a well coached, veteran outfit.

Cal vs. USC Recap

Let's move onto the successful part of the weekend. This is what I wrote after Cal last lost to USC on an Ashley Corral buzzer beating banked in three pointer:

As much as I try to stay positive and enjoy following my Alma Mater, sometimes the results make me come to the conclusion that God does in fact hate the University of California. And the proof frequently manifests itself when the Golden Bears are matched up against teams that hail from Los Angeles.

So when Ashley Corral hit two straight completely absurd 3 point shots in a row (one of which banked in) to draw USC within 2 with 34 seconds to go I started having horrible flashbacks to previous insanely painful losses to USC. But evidently the women's team is made up of sterner stuff than I am, and they successfully held off the Trojans for a huge victory, almost entirely on the strength of their offensive rebounding. Check out this play-by-play from the 2nd half:

53-49, Cal
2:29 - Defensive Rebound, Gennifer Brandon
2:12 - Missed 3 Pointer. Offensive Rebound, Eliza Pierre
1:44 - Missed Jumper. Offensive Rebound, Gennifer Brandon
1:41 - Good Jumper, Gennifer Brandon
55-49, Cal
1:19 - Steal, Gennifer Brandon
1:15 - Missed Jumper, Offensive Rebound, Eliza Pierre
0:46 - Good Layup, Layshia Clarendon
57-49, Cal
(USC hits two 3's, then commits a foul. 57-55 Cal)
0:28 - First FT Good, 2nd FT no good. Offensive Rebound Natasha Vital. USC Fouls
0:27 - First FT Good, 2nd FT no good. Offensive rebound Gennifer Brandon. USC Fouls
USC fouls Alexis Gray-Lawson, she makes both FTs. Cal leads, 61-55.

Cal took nearly two minutes off of the clock, and in that span (from 2:29 to 0:37) they held USC to zero shots and pulled down 3 offensive rebounds. Then when Corral hit her crazy 3 pointers the Bears iced it with two more offensive rebounds. Also worth noting: Cal beat the Trojans with a mortal performance from Alexis Gray-Lawson, who only scored 9 points on 3-9 shooting. Instead strong performances were turned in by Gennifer Brandon, Layshia Clarendon and DeNesha Stallworth, who in particular seems to love playing against USC.

Stat Chart vs. USC and UCLA

FGs 3 pts. FTs Pts Rbs Asts TOVs Mins
Alexis Gray-Lawson 6-20 0-4 8-10 20 9 2 1 75
Gennifer Brandon 3-16 - 1-3 7 22 0 6 48
Layshia Clarendon 9-20 2-9 4-5 24 6 4 8 64
DeNesha Stallworth 8-24 - 2-2 18 12 1 5 71
Natasha Vital 2-12 0-5 3-4 7 8 3 7 42
Eliza Pierre 0-5 0-3 - 0 4 3 1 28
Talia Caldwell 2-2 - 2-3 6 6 2 3 28
Rachelle Federico 3-6 2-4 1-2 9 2 0 1 21
Brenna Heater 1-4 0-1 0-2 2 3 0 1 16
Lauren Greif 0-2 0-2 - 0 0 0 0 11

Well, everything looks pretty bleak when you nearly set a record for fewest combined points in a half in NCAA history. It's a shame there isn't really a stat to reflect Cal's defensive effort for the first 10 minutes of the UCLA game (other than the zero stat on the scoreboard) because for a time the Bruins were even more frustrated than Cal. I'm going to file these stats in the back of my brain and hope they never show up again.

Player of the Game vs. USC - Brandon, Clarendon, and Stallworth

Fine, I'll admit that I'm too wishy-washy to pick one. Clarendon led the Bears in scoring and hit a variety of runners and two huge 3's - one to beat the shot clock buzzer - that kept Cal in contact when USC threatened to pull away late in the first half and early in the 2nd half. Gennifer Brandon again had an absurd game on the glass, pulling down 14 rebounds and the majority of the offensive rebounds that ultimately won Cal the game. Stallworth contributed both points (14) and rebounds (10) and again showed off a variety of inside moves to get her points against the Trojans - I bet she fell asleep Thursday night dreaming of drawing USC again in the Pac-10 tournament so she can add to her total of 44 on the year.

Player of the Game vs. UCLA - Rachelle Federico


Federico calmly directs traffic against UCLA

‘Mooch’ has been a role player for Cal this year – an excellent three point shooter who can help break down a zone defense. Against UCLA she was the only player on the court who looked remotely composed in the face of UCLA’s perimeter pressure. She came into the game with 17 minutes left in the 2nd half and stayed on the court for the rest of the game. During her time on the court she hit two tough threes, a runner in the lane, drew a shooting foul and only turned the ball over once. Basically, she single-handedly kept Cal in striking distance and generally seemed to be putting out the most effort. Her performance makes me think that she should perhaps be getting more time on the court in the future.

What's Next: Cal @ WSU (1-10, 6-16), Cal @ Washington (4-7, 9-12)

For some reason playing a team with no conference wins irrationally scares me, so I'm thrilled that WSU got their first Pac-10 win of the year on Saturday on the road against ASU. WSU is pretty good for a team that's 1-10; they've been within 10 points of each team in their last 5 losses, including against Cal. They won't be a pushover in Pullman. Washington, meanwhile, is in a painful slump. They've only won 1 game (over WSU in overtime) in their last 7. Cal should win both games to rise to 8-5 in the conference, but they'll need to bring the same defensive intensity they had against UW and WSU the first time around, and hopefully the offense that came to play against USC and not UCLA.