Consider the contrasts between the following set of statistics:
DeNesha Stallworth vs. Stanford: 25 minutes, 4 points, 1 rebound
DeNesha Stallworth vs. Arizona St.: 32 minutes, 16 points, 7 rebounds
Layshia Clarendon's FG-FGA vs. Stanford: 3-15
Layshia Clarendon's FG-FGA vs. Arizona St.: 8-13, Arizona: 5-9
Rebounding margin vs. Stanford: -23
Rebounding margin vs. Arizona St.: +14 , vs. Arizona: +27
Nobody was happy with the effort against Stanford, lest of all Joanne Boyle, who essentially called the entire team out for lack of effort after the game. The Bears hadn't put together a particularly strong performance since November and it didn't feel like any tangible progress had been made from last season. But the entire team responded to Boyle's critique with a players-only meeting and an increased effort in practice, and the result was an impressively comprehensive weekend sweep.
Sure, part of the turnaround might have something to do with how good Stanford appears to be. But Arizona and Arizona St. both came into the Bay Area on seven game win streaks, top 50 RPIs and just one combined loss to unranked teams. All the evidence indicated that both Arizona schools could compete for 2nd or 3rd in the conference . . . and Cal beat them both convincingly, maintaining double digit leads throughout the majority of both games.
Cal 67, Arizona St. 55
Since I was unable to see the game (save for the highlights above) I have to go by what I heard on the radio and what I get out of the stat sheet, and the most obvious thing is rebounding. Last year Cal really struggled to get the boards against ASU, and it's the main reason they lost two of their three games against the Sun Devils. This year's ASU team mostly has the same personnel - Becca Tobin and Kimberly Brandon are still their main rebounders - so the way Cal dominated the boards even without Gennifer Brandon really speaks to the effort, intensity and execution they brought to Haas on Thursday.
The other big key was defense, particularly Pierre's defense on Dymond Simon, who scored just 6 points on 3-12 shooting despite entering the game averaging about 15 per game. Only Becca Tobin was effective on offense for ASU, and the Bears did a great job of finding what was working on offense and sticking to that. And what was working? Mid-range jumpers and drives from Layshia Clarendon and inside shooting from DeNesha Stallworth. In my game preview I noted that both teams shot poorly from behind the arc, particularly ASU. Well, Cal attempted just three 3 pointers, while ASU went 1-13 from deep. Cal had a game plan on offense, they executed it, sank their shots and walked away with a 12 point win.
Player of the game: Layshia Clarendon didn't just lead the team in scoring - she did it efficiently (24 points on just 13 shots!) and she got points every time ASU threatened to make a run. She broke a 6-0 ASU run that spanned halftime, she hit a long jumper when the lead was down to four points, and she drew the fouls and sank some of the free throws that ended up icing the game. Every Cal fan who watched ASU go on a 12-0 run to win by 2 in Berkeley last year couldn't get that sinking feeling to go away when ASU cut the lead to 6 with a minute and a half to play. But the Bears learned their lesson, in large part from Layshia's efforts.
Cal 80, Arizona 60
So much about this game was awesome. For starters, the offense was darn near unstoppable. I'm not sure if I'm more impressed that Cal had an eFG% of 55% or that they collected 18 offensive rebounds to Arizona's 16 defensive rebounds, meaning that when Cal missed a shot, they were more likely to get the ball than the Wildcats were!
Joanne Boyle has received occasional heat from fans dissatisfied with Cal's offense, but this weekend is solid evidence that Cal is fully capable of executing different offensive game plans. As I mentioned above, the Bears only shot three 3 pointers against ASU. But against Arizona's 2-3 zone Cal attempted twelve 3 pointers and made eight of them. All of them were open and within the flow of the offense. Beyond trying to stretch the zone with 3's, Cal did a good job of attacking the soft spot in the zone around the free throw line. The Bears used Rama N'Diaye's height to hold the ball. If a defender flashed out to guard her she dished to a big inside. If a defender came down from the perimeter she passed to an open Sherbert or Clarendon for 3. If nobody guarded her she nailed a mid-range jumper. It was a clinic on beating a zone and a thing of beauty to watch.
I only saw two flaws in Cal's performance: turnovers and transition defense - and I'm willing to give Cal a major pass on the transition defense for reasons I'll explain. While watching the game live I didn't realize that Cal was accumulating so many turnovers - probably because the game was played at such a fast pace and because everything else was going so well. Arizona has speed to spare and the game was up and down the court for 40 minutes, so it's not really surprising that Cal had turnover problems. It's something the Bears will likely struggle with all season.
But I'm giving Cal a pass on transition defense because I've never seen a team sell out for transition baskets as much as Arizona did. I'm not sure if Arizona came in with that game plan or if it was a response to their inability to score in the half court set, but after every Cal shot nearly every Wildcat except for Ify Ibekwe began immediately leaking down the court. Meanwhile, every Cal player is taught to crash the offensive glass if at all possible, so it's not surprising that they were caught out of position frequently. And Arizona's strategy was frankly their undoing, because Cal dominated the boards to an absurd degree. Sure, they got a few fast break points, but at the cost of many easy second chance points for Talia Caldwell and company down low. It's a trade I'll make every day of the week.
Player of the game: Talia Caldwell could have recorded a double double without a defensive rebound if she wanted to - that's how dominant she was on the boards, despite going head-to-head with one of the best rebounders in the Pac-10 in Ify Ibekwe. I mean, 18 rebounds?!? In just 27 minutes?!? Averaging that out over 40 minutes would give her 27! Add in 13 points in her typically efficient fashion, plus a number of fouls drawn and that's a player of the game award winner, easily.
-Lindsay Sherbert took some time to get comfortable, but with her three point barrage against Arizona she went over 40% for the year from behind the arc. Last year we kept talking about how Cal needed to find a shooter. Well, Joanne Boyle found one, but she's not just a shooter. She's pulling down six rebounds a game, running in transition, hitting her free throws and avoiding turnovers. Her skill set fits in perfectly with what Cal needed and that's why she's started every game so far this year.
The Bears travel up north to Pullman and Seattle to face two teams that have really struggled this year. The only reason not to expect a sweep is because Cal hasn't really played their best basketball on the road. But even then there's not really anything to indicate that the Bears can't go in to a huge weekend against the L.A. schools at 4-1 in the conference, tied for 3rd with USC. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Just like coach said, it's time for a business trip.