Cal went 1-1 this past week, and yet I found myself more encouraged with this particular road split than many previous undefeated weeks. There were so many positives both from a team and an individual perspective, and relatively few negatives. Really, the only negative from the week: Boy, this team fouled Washington a whole bunch. Take away that negative and the Bears would have completed their toughest road sweep in years.
Washington 79, Cal 77
So let's get those negatives out of the way before we get to the positives. Washington scored an impressive 1.13 points/possession, by far the most Cal has allowed all year. This is the first game of the season in which you can plausibly say that the Bears lost because of their defense.
However: Washington is an elite offensive team, and only scored a bit more efficiently than their season average. And Cal actually held UW to below their average eFG%. UW's offensive efficiency was mostly explained by a whopping 30 free throw attempts, only 4 of which came when Cal was fouling intentionally to prolong the game.
By the end of the game, Cal had committed 20 fouls to Washington's 9. While watching the game, I never felt like Cal was consistently getting the short end of the straw from the refs, but the final result ended up looking pretty lopsided. Most of the credit goes to Kelsey Plum, one of the most naturally gifted offensive players I have ever watched. As a sophomore she is already gifted at creating the type of contact that refs tend to call, and she's such a great shooter and finisher that a defender can't cheat on her one way or the other to help avoid fouling.
Watching the game, it felt like Washington had to play a near flawless game to win. They needed to hit some circus shots, shoot well from 3, have the refs call the game tightly, hit a high percentage of their free throws, have Reshanda Gray miss some bunnies, and hope that Cal didn't get hot from behind the arc.
All of those things happened, and UW still barely won, at home.
So no, I'm not discouraged that Cal barely lost the 4th toughest game they will face in Pac-12 play this year. It's mostly just frustrating that a golden opportunity slipped away thanks mostly to UW playing at close to their maximum potential on offense for 40 minutes.
Cal 70, Washington State 62
Tia Presley and Lia Galdeira combined for 30 points . . . on 40 shots. I probably don't need to tell you that that is a phenomenal defensive performance. Only top 25 Nebraska has done a better defensive job against the potent back-court duo
Once you get past Cal's defense, this game was mostly about another dominating Reshanda Gray performance against the Cougars. Beast Mode ended up dropping 24 and 16, and it actually could have been even better, because she missed a few looks you would ordinarily expect her to make.
My only other observation? Well, it was a weekend long development, so let's make it a section of its own . . .
Developing offensive depth
When the year started, Cal's offense was Boyd and Gray, plus some Courtney Range. That's a pretty solid base - most coaches can build a pretty decent offense with three players like that.
But then Courtney Range got injured, and the offense came crashing down in three straight losses. The freshmen weren't ready to pick up that kind of slack.
Well, that's starting to change. Here are the offensive stats accumulated by Cal's freshmen over their last four games:
Mikayla Cowling: 20-34 shooting, 43 points, 4 assists, 6 turnovers
Penina Davidson: 13-20 shooting, 30 points, 2 assists, 4 turnovers
Gabby Green: 10-39 shooting, 28 points, 11 assists, 7 turnovers
In total, Cal's freshmen are averaging 25 points/game in Pac-12 play without turning the ball over an inordinate amount. Is there room for improvement? Of course. Green could stand to improve her shooting percentages. Davidson could help out a bit more on the glass. Cowling needs to foul a bit less often. But being thrown into the fire after Range's injury has clearly paid dividends now that each player is more used to their increased role.
And now that Courtney Range is close to being back (rumblings are that she will play vs. ASU on Friday) the Bears will be that much more versatile. The Bears will soon have a much more stable rotation better able to absorb off-games and foul trouble.
You might have noticed a tweet from the WBB official account announcing that all four of Cal's American signed recruits has been nominated for the McDonald's All-American team. I did a little counting and estimated that about 325 players are nominated, so it's not particularly surprising that all of Cal's recruits are on the nomination list. Still, it's a sign of how strong we now expect recruiting to be.
In terms of who will actually make the cut and make the team of 24? Kristin Anigwe is a shoo-in, but will likely be the only Bear at the event. Asha Thomas and Bre Cavanaugh might have outside chances. Frankly, any recruiting season with an incoming McDonald's All-American is a good one.
Quick ASU/Arizona preview
I'm working on a bigger preview of Arizona State, as the Sun Devils are 100% a legit threat to win the Pac-12 this year. Suffice to say that they are getting the majority of the attention this weekend as many will assume a win over cellar-dwelling Arizona.
Just how good ASU is will likely be determined by their Bay Area swing. If Cal can knock them off, it will put the Bears in a great place in the conference title race, with six straight games against unranked teams. Just as importantly, it would be a top 10 RPI win which is obviously huge in March. Simply stated, this is one of the most important games of the year. Don't miss it.