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Cal women's basketball: clutch, lucky, or both?

What can we learn from a recent spate of close games?

The Cardiac Bears might stress out Coach G, but she's usually smiling when the clock hits zero.
The Cardiac Bears might stress out Coach G, but she's usually smiling when the clock hits zero.
Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

As I recovered from Cal's exhausting win over Oregon, I started reflecting on how many times over the last few years I had watched a thrilling, stressful women's basketball game that ended with a win. After looking back at the numbers, I realized it's a topic worthy of further attention. Here's what I found out.

Record in single digit games

Record in double digit games










I included the double digit W/L record more as an FYI and a reminder of how lucky we are as fans at the moment. Since Lindsay Gottlieb took over, we have been able to watch 43 games in which Cal won with relative ease. We have also seen an additional 24 games that were reasonably exciting and still ended with a Cal win.

But the numbers I want to focus on are 24-8. That's Cal's combined record in games decided by single digits under Lindsay Gottlieb. That's phenomenal - a .750 winning percentage, to be precise.

And frankly, such a high winning percentage in close games flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In Gottlieb's first two years Cal struggled to hit free throws, a weakness one would expect to be most exploitable in the waning minutes of a close game. And yet Cal's only losses by less than 10 points last year? A nine point loss to Stanford and a seven point loss to Louisville, two games that weren't particularly impacted by poor Cal free throw shooting.

Now, if you're a statistically inclined fan, that .774 winning percentage might be setting off alarm bells in your head. It's a widely held tenet amongst the analytics crowd that performance in close games (i.e. ‘clutch') is not a repeatable skill, and that over time teams will revert to the mean. That doesn't necessarily mean that Cal is destined to lose a bunch of close games in a row, but it does mean that it's unrealistic of fans to expect Cal to pull out the win every time it's a close game down the stretch.

What I'm more interested in at the moment is considering why Cal has been so successful in close games during the Gottlieb tenure generally, and during the last year and a half in particular. I doubt there is a single answer, and it's worth noting that each year is different - particularly this year and last year, considering the significant roster changes that have taken place. Here's my stab:

1) Luck

Sometimes you get lucky. Last year, Cal was one Jamie Weisner jumper from losing to Oregon State on senior day. Last year, if Ariya Crook doesn't suddenly go cold at the line, Cal doesn't even have the chance to force overtime against USC. True, you have to make your own luck. True, you have to have the talent to take advantage of your opponent's mistakes. But there's no harm in acknowledging when you catch a break.

2) Playing from ahead

In a few of Cal's ‘close' wins, the game wasn't really all that close, but the Bears missed a few free throws at the end and their opponents hit a few shots, and a game that would have been a 12 point win was instead a six point win. If you're a really good team and you're typically ahead late in the game, you're probably going to win lots of games. Some might appear to be closer than they really were.

3) Rebounding free throws

Here's where we get into a very specific talent that is very specifically valuable in late game situations. Particularly last year, Cal was the best team I have ever seen at rebounding their own missed free throws. And it created situations where Cal could get 2, 3, or 4 point possessions in late game situations without their opponent being able to do anything about it. With Talia Caldwell's graduation and Gen Brandon's absence this hasn't really been a part of Cal's repertoire yet this year, but that could change now.

4) Brittany Boyd

Typically, teams trying to come back try to press you to force turnovers. Yesterday notwithstanding, Brittany Boyd is one of the best press breaking point guards in the country, and that allows Cal to turn situations that might otherwise result in a turnover into a fast break basket instead. Kudos to Oregon for executing the late game press better than just about any other team Cal has faced over the last few years.

5) Coaching

I can't say that I can recall specific instances over the last few years when I thought to myself, ‘Gee, that was a really brilliant strategic decision from Coach Gottlieb.' But then again, neither can I recall a specific instance when I thought to myself, ‘Gee, that was a really poor strategic decision from Coach Gottlieb.' That probably speaks more to my own ignorance as a fan, but most of us know bad game theory when we see it and Coach G hasn't given us any reason to complain.

6) Being better at basketball

Generally speaking, Cal has been the more talented team in the vast majority of the games they have played under Lindsay Gottlieb, and in a close game, the better team probably wins more often than the less talented team.

This is the high level insight CGB pays me the big bucks to provide.

So, if you were to ask me why Cal has been so good at pulling out close wins, I'd say it's been a potpourri of the factors listed above, and probably a few others that I'm not thinking of at the moment. Like, say, maybe the other team sees the laser-sharp focus in Reshanda Gray's eyes and they wilt under the pressure. That's probably in there somewhere.