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Texas 73, California 70: Season of almost comes to an end

Cal's 2014-15 season comes in the round of 32 against the Longhorns.

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Shooting over 6'7'' is hard.
Shooting over 6'7'' is hard.
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Lindsay Gottlieb said it best in her post-game press conference:

I did think this would be a year for some championships, or some celebrating, and it turned out to more a year of almosts.

The Bears looked poised to contend for the Pac-12 regular season title, but a late-season mini-swoon ended those hopes. The Bears were just a few points (or perhaps one bruised cheek) away from a first-ever Pac-12 conference title. And now the Bears are just short of a Sweet 16 appearance.

It's tough. This was a fun year, an entertaining year. We saw impressive individual efforts, and thrilling games. We watched two seniors put together some of the most statistically impressive campaigns in Cal history. We saw a sophomore grow into a major threat, and extremely talented freshmen adapt to the college game.

And on occasion, the Bears flashed what could have been when they put it all together. A 24 point win over Washington, a 10 point win at Maples, a dominating win over Wichita State - all of them showed what the Bears could do at their best, which meant that the narrow losses frustrated all the more.

* * * * *

Cal lost to Texas for two big reasons: Texas dominated the paint, and Texas dealt with Cal's various pressure defenses. Let's talk about each issue separately.

Prior to the game, I highlighted the battle between Reshanda Gray and Imani McGee-Stafford and Kelsey Lang, and said that if Cal could hold their own on the glass, the Bears would win. I was right that the match-up would be critical, but wrong about that 2nd part.

Texas rebounded 30% of their missed shots, Cal 27%. That's essentially a dead heat. The difference is that Texas immediately converted their offensive rebounds into put-back baskets, while Cal's rebounds tended to lead to full resets of the offense. But it went beyond just the pure rebound totals and the 2nd chance point totals.

There's one thing that Cal has never had under Lindsay Gottlieb, and that's an elite rim protector. A player that makes other teams fear even attacking the paint. A player like Ruth Hamblin, or Chiney Ogwumike . . . or Imani McGee-Stafford. And it's no wonder - players like that are exceedingly rare and highly sought after.

McGee-Stafford and Kelsey Lang 'only' combined to block 3 shots, but their mere presence (and, unfortunately, foul trouble) turned Reshanda Gray into a near non-factor. The duo played at the same time for more minutes than anybody expected, and it worked to perfection. They totaled 34 points and 17 rebounds, while Gray had just 7 and 3. Cal only totaled 18 points in the paint. Frankly, it's a testament to how far this team has come in terms of offensive versatility that this game was close.

Maybe next year Cal might have one of those players. ESPN's women's basketball recruiting service describes Kristine Anigwe as an 'elite shot blocker with mobility,' and Anigwe is four inches shorter than fellow freshman recruit Chen Yue. But against Texas, Cal had to concede control of the paint.

And yet, Cal still had a chance to win the game. To overcome Texas' size advantage, they would have to shoot well from outside and force turnovers to control the game in transition. One of those things happened; the Bears shot 11-25 from behind the arc. But the turnovers and transition game never happened.

If you watched Texas play Western Kentucky on Friday, you would have been justified in thinking that Texas would struggle to penetrate the various presses and traps that Cal can throw at you. But after turning the ball over 27% of the time Friday, the Longhorns took much better care of the ball against Cal and lowered their turnover percentage to 18%. Cal's press was particularly ineffective, and credit must again go to McGee-Stafford - when you have a 6'7' tower, you can throw her passes that Cal cannot possibly intercept, and she can throw passes that Cal cannot bother. Texas plunked her down in the middle of the court on press breaks, and it worked to perfection.

Texas ended up outscoring Cal in transition, 12-5. The Bears had a throw a ton of bodies at the glass to prevent Texas offensive rebounds, and the steals never materialized for easy breaks. It was a great combination of game-planning and execution from the Longhorns, and there wasn't a ton Cal could do to stop it.

* * * * *

Man, what happened during the first six minutes of the 2nd half?

The game was tied 27-27 at the half, and Texas took control with a 12-0 run. In that span, Cal turned the ball over seven times (35% of Cal's total turnovers in 15% of the game!) and shot 0-6 from the field. Six different players coughed up the ball, and many of the mistakes were completely unforced.

It ended up being the difference in the game. When Coach G finally called a timeout, it was Brittany Boyd who let the team have it in the huddle, and the Bears immediately responded on offense. 27 points over 26 minutes is obviously bad; Cal would score 43 points over the remaining 14 minutes of the game.

And here's where you have to credit Texas again - they never messed up, never blinked. Cal put on an offensive onslaught over the game's final 14 minutes, and if the Longhorns had ever screwed up - missed the front end of a one and one, made a careless turnover, took too-early shots - then Cal very well could have at least tied the game, if not taken the lead.

But Texas didn't screw up. They went 10-12 from the line and only had two turnovers during Cal's 14 minute comeback attempt. To Cal's credit, they forced Texas to be great, and they were. Dammit.

* * * * *

Brittany Boyd ended her Cal career with 17 points on 8 shots, 10 assists, and 9 rebounds - one rebound short of a triple double. Reshanda Gray's Cal career ended with five fouls in 19 minutes on the court. There's a certain poetry to it - the highs and the lows, all wrapped up into one.

It ended with Gray desperately trying to will on her teammates from the bench, and it ended with Boyd in tears, barely able to pick up her body off the court to hand out congratulatory handshakes to the Longhorns.

For 342 teams, each season ends painfully. This one hurt more than most.