With their fifth straight double digit victory the Cal women finished off the 2009-10 season in a way that was completely unexpected: A thoroughly dominating run to the championship of the WNIT. Three weeks after their third loss to Stanford, the Bears have completely changed how fans will remember the season and have raised the expectations for the future as well. But we have a long off-season to talk about the future. Let's take some time to talk about another wonderful performance that ended a long season.
Based purely on the numbers, this game was indisputably Cal's strongest offensive performance of the season. The Bears shot an eFG% of 58.7, more than 15% higher than their season average. Everything was working for the Bears on offense - timely outside shooting, great passing and ball movement, and an unstoppable performance from the post players. Beyond the obviously spectacular performance from DeNesha Stallworth, perhaps most impressive and unusual was the distribution of scoring - 6 different Bears scored 6 points or more. Maybe that doesn't sound impressive, but Cal has struggled to find scoring beyond two or three players, and very rarely do they get secondary contributions from more than one or two players in any given game. Yesterday, every player that stepped onto the court hit a key shot, drew fouls, or racked up assists. It's a shame that we'll be losing three seniors from a group that so clearly gelled during these last six games. Hopefully the 6 returning players will carry over their chemistry and blend well with the four new/returning players.
Cal had a solid defensive effort as well. Not surprisingly, Shenise Johnson and Riquana Williams got their points (21 and 20 respectively). But the Bears made them work for it, and the other Hurricanes only shot 8-28 from the field. That effort was led by Eliza Pierre, who at various times shadowed Williams and Johnson. When Eliza went to the bench with Cal up 9-0, her presence was plainly missed and Miami promptly went on a 16-2 run. Eliza re-entered the game (and very rarely left, eventually logging 34 minutes played) and Cal regained control with a 13-0 run of their own to establish a lead that they would not relinquish.
From a personal perspective, I was surprised to find that not once while watching the game did I ever feel nervous about the outcome. Just a few weeks ago I very rarely felt comfortable with anything but the biggest leads. But for their entire NIT run, the Bears established their strategy and proved they could win with it, and win big. That strategy? A consistent, stifling defense, an opportunistic offense and the ability to bludgeon a team to death with constant rebounding on both ends of the court. If Cal established a double digit lead they could just sit on it, running 25-30 second offensive sets and keeping the ball out of the other team's hand because nobody could out-board Cal. I've never seen a basketball team play ball control like Ohio St. or the Pittsburgh Steelers, but Cal did that in the WNIT. Will that be enough on its own to beat the Stanfords and UCLAs of the world in 2010-11? Perhaps not, but it is a great foundation to build a successful team on because rebounding is a consistent, repeatable skill.
Strategy wise I thought Cal did a great job of keeping Miami guessing by changing defenses, and on offense the Bears were able to get the ball consistently into the post. Miami's pressure defense never really got to Cal, and the Hurricanes only forced 14 turnovers (they average about 20). I was impressed with the calm ball handling and passing by Cal's guards when they were pressed, and the Bears were consistently able to break Miami's press much quicker than Miami broke Cal's. That ability to break the press led to a number of easy layups that prevented any potential Miami comebacks. That confident ball handling from Eliza Pierre and Layshia Clarendon will be valuable next year against teams like UCLA that love to trap in the backcourt.
For now, I'll leave you with my favorite play of the game - Alexis Gray-Lawson, trapped by a double team in the corner with the shot clock winding down. She calmly feints forward, quickly steps back and sets for a long, majestic jumper as the shot clock expires. Whistle. Swish. And 1. I'm going to miss her.
Comment starters: Senior memories and moments, game experiences, what impressed you yesterday and what you think keyed the Cal win.