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Cal 78, Wichita St. 66: Team effort smothers Shockers

Five Bears reach double figures in a comprehensive win over the Missouri Valley champions, and the Bears advance to take on 5 seed Texas on Sunday.

Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

When Cal added two elite freshmen recruits to an excellent core of returning talent, this is what everybody imagined, right?

Sure, Reshanda Gray was an unguardable beast, and Brittany Boyd had her usual smattering of electric assists and impressive defense. Cal impressed because they didn't need their seniors to carry the team on their back. This was as balanced as the Bears have been all season long, and it resulted in Gray and Boyd exiting the game early to a raucous standing ovation with a 20 point lead.

Every single starter reached double digit scoring. Four different players chipped in at least three assists, and four different players totaled six or more rebounds. Every one of the core six averaged more than a point/shot. The result was an offense that put up 1.07 points/possession, the 2nd highest total Wichita State allowed all season long.

And it's not like Cal's offense was buoyed by a great shooting night. The Bears shot a decent but unremarkable 5-15 from three point range, and they missed a variety of good looks at the basket - particularly early in the game. But facing a pressure defense that forces lots of turnovers, Cal mostly did a good job protecting the ball and did a spectacular job making attacking passes.

Some of the sequences were as beautiful as I've seen Cal play under Lindsay Gottlieb. There was Boyd's cross court lob to Jefflo for a big early 3. Boyd's laserbeam whipped pass to Range on the end line. A nice Cowling-to-Range-to-Green inside/outside combination. This was a team that knew exactly what it wanted to do on offense all game long.

Defensively, Cal was nearly as good. With 1:30 left, the Shockers only had 56 points, then scored a late 8 point flurry against Cal's bench playing indifferent defense. Before that late flurry, Cal held WSU to .82 points/possession, their 5th worst offensive showing of the season. I suppose it goes without saying that when you take a 20 point lead on a team that had only lost 4 times all year long, that team is having perhaps their worst game of the season.

As expected, Cal's size and length was decisive. The Shockers had major trouble just initiating their offense, as they were hounded by Mercedes Jefflo or Courtney Range running the point of the 1-3-1 zone. Cal's various zones and presses contributed to 15 WSU turnovers, but just as importantly delayed a slow offense from initiating. WSU had to settle for plenty of iffy shots, and their offense never really got going.

Gray was the offensive star of the game, scoring 22 points and making triple teams look easier to shrug off than an ASUC candidate on Sproul Plaza. WSU coach Jody Adams was quoted after the game that "we tried fronting her, we tried sandwiching her, we tried playing behind." It's not much different than what everybody else has tried this year, which is why it wasn't that big a deal for Gray. The biggest difference was that WSU's defenders didn't quite have the same size and length as most Pac-12 defenders.

With Gray drawing her usual amount of attention, Cal's wings and guards took turns taking advantage of the space they were being afforded. True, 17 turnovers seem like a frustratingly high amount. But believe it or not, turning the ball over 20% of the time is actually better than most teams do against the Shockers, who have forced turnovers on roughly 28% of opponent's possessions (I had to do the math myself, so I'm accounting for margin of error). Even better, most of Cal's turnovers were the aggressive kind - overambitious passes - rather than confusion or laziness that could lead to WSU transition opportunities.

Other thoughts:

  • Spectacular, 'score 20 points on a variety of crazy drives to the basket' Brittany Boyd is fun, but I like it when Boyd doesn't have to take over a game by calling her own number. Because her teammates were producing and getting open so consistently, Boyd only attempted 8 shots and was much more a facilitator. It was very much to Cal's advantage.
  • As a freshman, Mercedes Jefflo scored 4.3 points/game. In the first 17 games of this season, she averaged 7.4 points/game. Since then? 12.1 points/game. Her dramatic improvement from the field has been such an important piece for Cal's offense, and a tremendous testament to her work ethic.
  • Gabby Green had a much more confident offensive game in a variety of ways. Her confidence bringing the ball down the court in traffic against a pressing team was impressive. She also called her own number more often and created more open looks for herself than usual. It's a helpful development now and a crucial development for next year.
  • The passing Cal got on the block from Courtney Range and Mikayla Cowling really impressed. Neither player had a huge scoring night, but ended up being key cogs in an offense that kept the ball moving quickly and purposefully all game long.
  • What a bizarrely reffed game. There were seven fouls called in the first half, then 22 in the 2nd half. The refs literally tripled their rate of foul calls in the 2nd 20 minutes, and there wasn't even any intentional fouling from WSU late in the game. I didn't feel like the 2nd half was meaningfully more physical, and if anything all of the extra whistles benefited Cal, who took 10 more free throws than WSU. It just made for a more disjointed viewer experience. Oh well.
  • WSU didn't bring a band (presumably because their band is in Omaha with the men's team) and so the Texas band donned yellow shirts supplied by WSU and acted as their proxy. The young Texans seemed to really enjoy throwing up the shocker sign all game long. Ah, youth.
  • I was honestly disappointed with the number of fans who showed up in total, but the ones who DID show up were in excellent voice. The Cal band, a solid number of students, Cam Jordan, Mike Silver, Kate Scott . . . it was a great atmosphere with fans that really appreciated the effort the Bears gave. I can't recommend enough coming on Sunday if you're anywhere near Berkeley.
Next up is Texas, who didn't exactly impress while surviving a scare from Western Kentucky in the first game of the day in Berkeley. Texas obviously presents a vastly different physical and athletic challenge than the Shockers do, but Texas doesn't seem to be nearly as disciplined and well coached. We'll have a full preview of the Longhorns and their duplicitous band on Sunday morning.

Sunday's game (6:00 pm PT) will truly be the last time Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray will don Cal uniforms in Haas. What better conclusion to their home career than a win against Texas to go to the Sweet 16?