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#7 Cal 59, #20 Colorado 56: Bears Come Back From The Brink

Cal somehow overcomes a 16 point deficit to remain in first place in the Pac-12.

Ladies and gentleman, Brittany Boyd.
Ladies and gentleman, Brittany Boyd.

It was the play of the game, if not the year. Cal knocked the ball away from Chucky Jeffery, but the ball was destined for the crowd. Then, from out of nowhere, a golden blur shot by, careened out of bounds, and scooped the ball blindly into the hands of (I think) Gennifer Brandon. Brittany Boyd had produced a miraculous save, one that required her to practically run into the hallway.

And as soon as the ball was saved, Boyd turned around and sprinted back down the floor and called for the ball. Her teammates obliged. Colorado, seemingly stunned by the entire sequence and perhaps not entirely aware that Boyd was already back on the right side of the court, watched as she charged into the lane for a layup to extend Cal's lead from two points to four.

And really, it symbolized the entire game. Because late in the first half, it seemed like Cal's chances of winning were sailing out of bounds, and nobody was in a position to attempt a rescue. The Bears came out completely flat, and Colorado played confident, inspired basketball. After ten minutes Cal trailed 24-10. After 16 minutes it was 32-16. The Buffs were doubling up the #7 team in the nation on their home floor, and it didn't look fluky in the least.

It's hard to overstate how ugly most of the first half was. The Bears shot 23% from the field, missed 12 free throws, added 7 turnovers, and played some relatively indifferent defense on Colorado's three pointer shooters, allowed the Buffs to sink five from behind the arc to fuel the run. If Eliza Pierre doesn't hit two huge, desperation threes I don't know if Cal comes all the way back.

So with 4:05 left and the Bears down 16, Lindsay Gottlieb called a time out. I don't know if she said anything in particular, or if the Bears decided to wake up all on their own, but it was a different game the rest of the way. It would be seven whole minutes of gametime until Colorado scored again, all part of an 18-2 run that tied the game.

The biggest change was defense. Colorado is too good defensively to lose games unless you match their intensity. For 16 minutes, Cal failed to do so. The wake up call almost came too late, but it did come. The Bears didn't allow many more open looks, from outside the arc or inside of it. And eventually, we had ourselves a game again.

Cal's 2nd half offense was so much better, to the point that you wonder why the Bears rarely seem to play that way for 40 minutes. Gennifer Brandon was everywhere down low, Layshia Clarendon was scoring and facilitating, and Brittany Boyd was a monster in transition. But the real reason that Cal won might have been fouls. In the end Colorado committed 22 fouls to Cal's 12, and those fouls gave Cal enough opportunities to hit free throws, and probably softened Colorado's defense. Various Buffs were mired in foul trouble.

While watching Colorado rack up fouls while Cal stayed in the good graces of the officials, I tried to decide if the Bears were getting home town treatment. On one hand, Cal's sheer physicality is obvious and one might suspect that it would lead to foul calls. On the other hand, the act of being physical and aggressive lends itself to drawing fouls, particularly if it's done in a controlled manner. The simple reality is that Cal is either stronger (Talia Caldwell), faster (Brittany Boyd) or bouncier (Gennifer Brandon) than the opposition, and most other teams are going to have to foul or get left behind.

To Colorado's credit, they didn't wilt when the Bears came all the way back, and both teams traded the lead. Cal never led by more than four points, and the Buffs had a chance to tie the game in the final 10 seconds, but Brittany Wilson's final three fell well short.

The Bears survived. Again. Despite poor shooting. Despite awful free throw shooting. Despite seven Colorado threes. Despite a 16 point deficit.

Frankly, it feels like a minor miracle that Cal is still tied for first in the Pac-12. They arguably should have lost to USC. They arguably should have lost to Colorado. They barely held on against both Colorado and Utah on the road. But they did, and by far the worst of the Pac-12 schedule is behind them. Only one ranked team is left the rest of the way.

So full credit for steely nerves and sheer force of will. It's not ideal that this type of gritty comeback was necessary, but it sure as hell beats losing. Even if it means that your fanbase suffers a collective aneurysm in the process. Now let's never do that again.