For the first 10-15 minutes of the first half, it was wonderful to watch. There was Brittany Boyd slicing through the lane for a layup. Then a perfect lob pass over a fronting defender allows Talia Caldwell to score easily. Then Layshia Clarendon realizes she's got a size advantage and posts up, then spins for a layup. The Bears were in the midst of a 24-8 run that turned an early 4 point deficit into a 12 point lead. UCLA tried to beat the Bears at their own game, and they were getting torched. Players raced up and down the court, balls flew around at high speed from player to player, baskets came at a dizzying pace.
UCLA realized that playing their usual pressing man-to-man and upping the pace was a disastrous strategy. They slowed the game down, switched to a zone, and took all of the joy out of the game. Strategically, it was the right move, and it almost allowed the Bruins to come back. But unlike years past, this Cal team can win even if the opposition doesn't let them play exactly how they want to play.
So like USC, and Stanford, and Colorado and Utah and everybody else, UCLA clogged the paint and forced the Bears to try to patiently break down the zone. Hey, I'd love to see Cal play against a loose man-to-man defense every week. But this team has certainly faced this same depressing strategy enough to get by, even if it's not nearly as fun as watching Boyd and Co. race around like hungry greyhounds.
When Cori Close decided to go zone, the Bears had a double digit lead. With 4:20 left in the game, the Bears held a double digit lead. True, some of that lead disappeared in the final minutes when Cal couldn't hit their free throws. But the bottom line is that this team knows how to win no matter what the other team throws at them. And the Bears don't need to change their basic defense halfway through a game because this team has learned to play consistent, intense, disciplined man-to-man for 40 minutes.
There were some scary moments. Kari Korver and Thea Lemberger hit some big threes to cut into the lead at various points. UCLA's zone forced a bunch of turnovers. But whenever the Bruins got close the Bears had an answer, and the final result never seemed in much doubt.
-After a few rough games in which she was mired in constant foul trouble, Afure Jemerigbe stepped up with a solid performance. Two first half 3s were huge in terms of building and maintaining Cal's lead. She also had a solid game defensively, spending time guarding Markel Walker, a very tough defensive assignment. She came up with the steal of the game, somehow getting into a passing lane when UCLA was on a fastbreak, keeping the ball in bounds along the sidelines and controlling it. The steal eventually led to a Clarendon basket in the middle of Cal's 8-0 run late in the 2nd half that basically clinched the game.
-The turnovers were a bit of a bummer after so many games of excellent ball control. I will point out that the Bears were called for four offensive fouls and a few other violations, some of which were iffy calls. That's obviously not ideal, but I prefer turnovers of aggression that don't result in the opponent gaining an opportunity in transition.
-At one point late in the game Cal held the lead and UCLA needed to foul. So they intentionally started grabbing and poking like you see at the end of every game. Except the refs bizarrely didn't call fouls, and the result was more Cal turnovers. Then they called Brittany Boyd for a reach in foul that put UCLA to the line. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up. Luckily it didn't matter.
-You saw Layshia Clarendon at near the height of her abilities. It's easy to forget now that Brittany Boyd is on the team, but Layshia came to Cal as a combo-guard and spent plenty of time running the point as a freshman and sophomore. She showed off her passing ability today with six assists to four different Bears. She had her shot falling too, scoring 22 points on just 11 shots.
And so Cal sweeps the L.A. schools, for the first time since 2008-09. And that team was on the mind of Clarendon after the game:
"It's kind of one of those moments where you sit back and see that it's all paid off. I am so thankful for Alexis Gray-Lawson, Ashley Walker, Devanei Hampton, and all of those people who paved the way.
That 08-09 team beat Stanford, and they swept UCLA and USC at home. They also lost a couple of Pac-12 games late in the year with titles and tournament seeds on the line. The challenge for this group is to do better by avoiding those types of slip-ups. Next up is Colorado, still ranked and coming off of four straight dominating wins. The road isn't any easier, and this team has to stay sharp. So far they've been entirely up to the challenge.