I'm very happy that unlike other, more arrogant programs (cough USC cough) Cal decided that the WNIT wasn't beneath them and accepted a bid to participate. Beyond the obvious benefit of more basketball for my enjoyment, and a shorter off-season until football season, Cal's performance in the NIT will hopefully be a mini preview of next year's team. An opportunity to keep practicing and competing is always valuable, and Cal has enough talent on their roster that winning the whole thing isn't all that unrealistic. After beating UC Davis, Layshia Clarendon had this to say:
Our new team goal is there is no such thing as tired anymore. It's one and done. Genn had a headache, and we told her forget about it, worry about it later. There are no excuses at all.
That's just the attitude you want to hear as a fan. It may not be the NCAA tournament, but Cal is playing entertaining basketball in March and I'll gladly take it.
Cal vs. UC Davis
This was an awkward game to watch. Besides a low-quality stream and completely out-of-sync audio, UC Davis plays an unusual, perimeter based offense and a frustrating zone defense that created match-up difficulties for the Alexis Gray-Lawsonless Bears. 8 of the 9 players who played significant minutes for UC Davis shot at least two 3 point attempts. 47% of their attempts were from behind the arc. Because Talia Caldwell doesn't have the speed to guard players on the perimeter, she was limited to just 8 minutes. That meant that Cal was essentially playing a 7 man rotation without their best player against a team with an unusual strategy. If I had known all of that before the game, I would have been seriously worried about Cal's prospects. It took about 31 minutes for me to realize that a loss was perhaps a likely outcome of the game. When UC Davis stretched their lead to 8 with 6 minutes left I doubted that Cal had the offense necessary to come back and I started thinking about next year.
So how awesome was it when Layshia Clarendon and Gennifer Brandon willed the Bears to victory over the next 11 minutes of regulation and overtime? When Cal fell behind by 8, Layshia had collected 14 points. She would finish the game with 29 and her assertive offensive play was one of the differences between victory and defeat. Gennifer Brandon, meanwhile, was forced to play an impressive 37 minutes, and she responded by setting a Haas pavilion record with 21 rebounds. 21! UC Davis only pulled down 28 as a team! Gen is averaging over 8 rebounds a game despite only playing 22 minutes a game. I have a feeling that if she stays healthy she's going to be putting up some seriously impressive rebounding numbers over the course of her Cal career.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Lauren Greif's role in Cal's comeback. Lauren has had a tough year, particularly shooting the ball, but she hit a couple huge threes to keep Cal in it and made veteran play after veteran play down the stretch.
Cal vs. Utah
A tale of three games. Should I be pleased that Cal jumped all over Utah to start the game, frustrated that Cal lost 19 points out of a 22 point lead, or happy that the Bears turned it around in time for a 10 point victory? In the first 14 minutes Cal jumped to a 31-9 lead. Then Utah went on a 31-12 run over the next 16 minutes. Luckily Cal woke up in time to close the game on a 21-14 run.
To start the game, everything was working. It took about 10 minutes for Utah to record their first offensive rebound. It was about 15 minutes until Cal's first turnover. The Bears were shooting over 50% from the field, running in transition when it was available, and held Utah to 3 field goals over the first 15 minutes of the game. Complete and utter domination.
So what changed? It wasn't any particular substitution made by either team. Kalee Whipple and Taryn Wicijowski gradually woke up and the Bears just seemed to lose their intensity and confidence. Utah started getting a few offensive boards and all of a sudden it was the Bears that were being held to one shot per possession. Maybe Cal just relaxed. Luckily, Cal had Alexis Gray-Lawson back and she wasn't going to let the Bears go down so easily. She hit a jumper and a 3 in Cal's decisive 9-0 run to give Cal a relatively comfortable 12 point lead with 3:30 to play. Utah just didn't have enough gas left to make a game of it again.
Player of the game vs. UC Davis: Layshia Clarendon
Beyond being the driving offensive force in a come-from-behind victory, Layshia really showed me something that made me less worried about losing Lexi in 2011. She filled the role that Lexi had so impressively filled all season. When Cal absolutely had to get a basket this year, Lexi took the shot. In multiple wins this year she completely carried Cal. With the Bears struggling to score, Layshia did just that against the Aggies. 10-18 from the field, 6-6 from the line, and 6 assists shows me a player that shot the ball when she was open, passed it when she wasn't, and took advantage of every opportunity given to her.
It can't be sugarcoated: Cal wasn't a very good offensive team this year, and it wouldn't be unreasonable as a fan to worry about where the points would come from next year. Layshia gave us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to.
Player of the game vs. Utah: Alexis Gray-Lawson
It's good to have you back! Lexi never took this one over like she's capable of, but she had the buckets when Cal needed them and she made the hustle plays as well. 7-13 with 2 three pointers, 18 points and 5 rebounds in 37 minutes? Just a typical, average game from Cal's best player - but boy was it a relief to see her back on the court after being strapped to a board 10 days ago.
What's Next: Cal @ Oregon - Thursday, 7:00 PM, 3rd round of the WNIT
For mysterious reasons that cannot be explained, Cal is going to have to make a quick trip up to Eugene to play on the road despite a better conference record and a season sweep of the Ducks. Oregon's running offense seemed to bring the best out of the Bears and the last game in Eugene was perhaps Cal's strongest defensive effort of the season. But despite the sweep Oregon scares me. Their shooters can get hot at any time and run just about anybody right out of the gym. If Cal wins, they will play either BYU or Wyoming - maybe in Berkeley? Who knows. For now the focus is on the Ducks. Try to get a nap on the plane, Bears. You'll need all the energy you can muster in Eugene.