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Louisville 70, Cal 57: Improved effort isn't enough against Cards

Cal play Louisville close for 30 minutes before a late Cardinal run puts the game away.

Sara Hammond's 18 points led Louisville past Cal
Sara Hammond's 18 points led Louisville past Cal
Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Before I say anything else, let's start with something important: That was a really well played, entertaining game of basketball. Louisville is one of a handful of teams that are legitimate Final Four contenders, and for most of the game they played up to that standard. In response, Cal played probably their best team game of the season and still lost by 13.

It's always frustrating to lose, but holding your own against a really, really good team is imminently preferable to how Cal lost their previous two games. In a way it's more frustrating now, because if THIS Cal team showed up earlier they definitely would have beaten Long Beach State and perhaps would have beaten Kansas.

In my game preview, I identified four keys, and Cal managed to do the job on most of them. The Bears kept their turnovers to a manageable number against a pressing and trapping defense. They kept Louisville's offensive rebound numbers down. They mostly avoided foul trouble (more on that later). But Louisville shot the ball really, really well, and Cal just couldn't keep up despite hitting more deep shots than normal.

Many of the shots Louisville hit were shots Cal probably wanted the Cardinals to take. Jude Schimmel is a career 33% three point shooter - she hit three of four. Sara Hammond is a great interior player, but if she settles for a jumper, Cal probably takes that. She made a number of tough looks, including a three. When that happens, you just shrug in resignation.

Cal fell behind quickly when Louisville hit their first four 3 pointers and the Bears committed 8 turnovers in the first 7:30 of the game. Quite frankly, it looked like the game was going to be a blowout early because Cal couldn't handle Louisville's aggressive defense.

But Cal calmed down and actually started using the Louisville sideline trap to their advantage, intentionally dribbling to that area of the court as part of a planned play. Either Boyd or Green would try to draw the 2nd defender and then immediate pass out to an outlet player who initiated a play against the out-of-position Louisville defense. That plus Louisville not hitting every shot allowed Cal to close an early 11 point deficit all the way down to 4. Unfortunately for the Bears, Louisville hit a shot clock buzzer beating 3 (from a career 31% 3 point shooter) to end the first half and carried an 8 point lead into the locker room.

The Bears pulled out something courageous in the 2nd half - without Courtney Range, and with a rotation of basically six players, they started pressing. In three minuets of game time, Louisville committed five turnovers and Cal very nearly overturned the entire halftime deficit. Cal had five chances to score to either tie the game or take the lead, but they couldn't get that basket to put them over the hump.

And unfortunately, Cal couldn't keep pressing - not with Brittany Boyd, Gabby Green, and Mikayla Cowling playing a combined 118 out of 120 potential minutes between the three of them. If Cal had more depth, they might have been able to maintain that type of energy level that gave Louisville fits, but it wasn't remotely realistic to do it for 40 minutes.

The other problem Cal faced in the 2nd half was Reshanda Gray foul trouble. Gray picked up her 4th foul (on, it appeared to me and many others, an awful call) with 8:28 left and went to the bench. While she sat, Louisville's lead only grew by one point. But when Gray came back there was only 3:46 left on the clock, and it's a tall order to come back down 9 with so little time left. Cal only scored on one of seven possessions while Gray sat. If she had been on the court, perhaps Cal has another 4-6 points, and the deficit is much more manageable.

Individual player thoughts:

  • I thought the box score was harsh on Brittany Boyd, who finished 4-15 from the field with 7 turnovers. Some of those turnovers probably weren't all or even mostly her fault, and the very nature of Cal's offense often requires Boyd to try to create by herself when everything else doesn't work. Having said that, Cal needs more from her in terms of efficiency in games like these.
  • Gabby Green and Mikayla Cowling held their own playing HUGE minutes against what I'm comfortable saying is the best team Cal will face in the regular season. Exciting stuff.
  • Reshanda Gray bounced back from two foul-marred games with a beastly performance. It's hard to overstate how much attention she gets on a play-by-play basis, the pounding she both takes and delivers inside on every possession. She finished with a huge double double despite constant double and triple teams whenever she touched the ball.
  • Justine Hartman's defense has improved dramatically, and she did a solid job inside with 2 blocks and four rebounds.
  • Penina Davidson only played 6 minutes but looked significantly more comfortable on the court, mostly in terms of confidence in knowing where she should be and what she should be doing.
Cal will wrap up non-conference play against a decent Old Dominion team. A three game losing streak is not any amount of fun, but I was very encouraged with today's performance. Louisville was playing a level of basketball that could easily have resulted in an embarrassing blowout, particularly when you consider that Cal was missing their 3rd best player in Courtney Range.

If Cal can bring this level of effort and execution night-in, night-out in Pac-12 play, then a conference title is still in play. The Bears are no longer the favorite, but the race looks more wide-open than ever before. If nothing else, the next three months should be plenty exciting.