Leverage. The unique nature of college basketball means all the leverage comes late. You play 30 games to get to March -- 30 battles that test your mettle for 40 minutes. As a fan you yell, you scream, you cry, you sweat, you exult. You love -- you love your team for four glorious months. And then it’s here. March. And all of a sudden all the leverage shifts. Into single games. Into one and dones. Into survive and advance or lose and go home. Fates hanging on single games, and then single possessions that define you. Are you a conference champion or an early exit? Are you a Sweet 16 team or a postseason choker? Did you get to the Final Four or are you a coach that can’t win in the postseason?
Single game eliminations against teams that are going to be, by the nature of the system, pretty close to you in quality. The whole narrative, all the season and career defining success, all the leverage -- turning on one...or you’re done.
And so, trying to make a statement that they do, in fact, belong with the elite teams of the Pac-12, Cal Women’s Basketball played the UCLA Bruins on Friday, a team they had lost to twice, and had not been particularly competitive against. Trying to reach the semi-finals of the Pac-12 tournament. Trying to play themselves into a reasonable seed. Trying to add another signature win to a season where such wins have been near impossible to obtain. Trying to avoid going home.
For 38 minutes they played them to a complete standstill. 69-69 with 2:00 remaining in the game. Despite facing the rested Bruins after playing down to the wire with Washington on Thursday, Cal dug deep and stood toe to toe with UCLA for 38 heart wrenching, gut punching, exhilarating March minutes. Then, as the game reached its climax -- leverage. Individual plays, magnified tenfold in close games, as two evenly matched teams struggle to reach an outcome. The other reality of college basketball -- when two teams are close, every possession grows larger and larger, and so much leverage is generated in little moments. And for Cal, in those possessions, heartbreak. The tide turning on a foul here, a turnover there, and ultimately, in the high leverage world of one and done, one team had to lose. It was the Bears, who go home 1-1 in the conference tournament and who now wait for 10 days for their NCAA Tournament fate.
Final Score: UCLA 77 - Cal 74
The first half was difficult for the Bears. A step slow for much of the 20 minutes, they allowed UCLA a 6 rebound advantage on the offensive glass and turned the ball over 6 more times than the Bruins. Those 12 extra possessions were more than enough to make up for UCLA only shooting 29% in the half. Despite shooting 44% themselves, Cal still trailed by 5, and the lethargy seemed too much to overcome. In her halftime interview, Coach Gottlieb said they had to be a lot tougher. They responded.
The 3rd quarter was one of the best the Bears have played all year, and showed us why so many of us have high hopes for this squad in the postseason. After quickly going down 11, Cal put on a spurt that showed how much heart and spirit and fire these players are capable of delivering. On the back of Kristine Anigwe, who had only 3 points at halftime, the Bears turned up the energy to the tune of a 24-9 run. Kristine scored 10 of those 24, while gathering 4 boards and providing the gravity that allowed Kianna Smith, Asha Thomas, and Mikayla Cowling to also get involved on the perimeter.
Cal also turned around the glass, coming up with five offensive boards in the quarter while allowing only one to the Bruins. They turned the ball over only once, while forcing a pair of UCLA turnovers. It was a dominant stretch of basketball, punctuated by a beautiful lob entry from Thomas to Anigwe to close the quarter, to give Cal a two point lead heading into the final stanza. It seemed that Cal had enough legs, and enough heart, after all.
Leverage Point 1: Kristine’s Fifth Foul
We already know that the 4th quarter was close, and Cal ultimately came up on the short end. But amid our grief, let’s take a look at the little moments that decide close games, and take a moment to contemplate how slim the margin between triumph and disaster is in March college basketball.
After sitting for 5 minutes with illness and 4 fouls (a stretch during which Cal went from up 2 to tied), Kristine came in with 3:39 left. She grabbed one defensive board, then on the ensuing possession she was called for her 5th foul with 3:00 left. She was fighting for a rebound with Kelli Hayes, got her arms tangled, and Hayes went down. It was an unfortunate call, as the replay showed Kristine hooked the arm for only a split second, and did not gain an advantage by doing so. It was the kind of call that could, and should, be ignored, as it could easily be called, one way or the other, on almost every possession.
The game was tied at 67 at the time. Anigwe had been playing like an All-American in the 2nd half, and UCLA had no answers. As high a leverage foul out as you can have coming down the stretch of a close game.
There has been a ton of outrage on social media that the refs cost Cal the game. Although this was an incredibly important moment, after watching the tape I’ll make the case otherwise.
- With 5:33 in the 3rd quarter, Kristine got called for her 3rd foul when she clearly bumped Monique Billings in the air, 7 feet from the hoop, as Billings was establishing post position. Had Billings caught it in that spot, she was a limited threat, with Mikayla already coming over in good position to double. The foul was completely unnecessary.
- With 8:36 in the 4th quarter, Billings posted up Kristine, spun baseline, beat her cleanly, and had an easy look at the bucket. Kristine bumped her from behind, making her earn the two points. Normally a reasonable play, except for one thing: you’re Kristine Anigwe and you already have 3 fouls. The value of Kristine being on the floor is worth so much more than the half a point of expectation you gain by fouling a 70% FT shooter. It’s a foul that absolutely cannot, and should not be made in a close game.
- Kristine Anigwe is often relentlessly aggressive. What she is not, sometimes, is wisely aggressive. She bears more responsibility than any referee for ending up out of that game.
- On the 5th foul, Kristine did hook the arm momentarily, and from the referee’s angle it did look like the contact caused Hayes to fall. Kristine actually did a nice job of jumping over and around without much contact, but this is the kind of call that gets made routinely by the the ref in that position in all levels of basketball. It was not the right call, but it is part of what happens in a game of human error. And here’s the thing. Other than that one call, there was not a whole lot to complain about. Yes, Cal was saddled with foul trouble all night. You wanna know what else Cal did? They got constantly out of position to a team that was a step quicker, and today, more fundamentally sound. UCLA was more aggressive, Cal was on its heels a lot, and that story mirrored the foul story. Yes, there were a few that seemed ticky tack. Billings gets away with travels constantly. But these things are par for the course not only in women’s hoop, but in all levels of hoop. I was as mad as anyone at the time the foul occurred, but through the cold light of Tivo replay, the refs did not cost us that game. The refs during Thursday’s Washington game made three of the worst calls I’ve ever seen -- the 5th fouls on Mikayla and Jaelyn, and the unsportsmanlike on Kristine. Today we saw nothing like that. We saw average refs and one key call that did not go our way.
Leverage Point 2: The Turnover
With 1:35 left, UCLA was up 1 with the ball and Jordin Canada drove middle and was forced to take a tough 10 foot pull up. She missed and CJ West could not quite secure the rebound. It trickled down to Jaelyn Brown who had fallen to the ground on the box out. She grabbed the ball, and for one bright second she had the rebound. Then she passed from her back. Intended for CJ. But instead directly to Kelli Hayes. Right under the basket. Instead of Cal ball down 1, UCLA made the easy layup and was up 3. The costliest of costly possessions, at the most inopportune time, and one that Cal would never recover from. If Jaelyn calls time out there, we might still be playing.
It is easy to second guess, because with two timeouts left, the value of that possession with under 2:00 is so, so high. And in fact, Kianna Smith was heads up enough to immediately motion (and apparently yell) for timeout as Jaelyn recovered on the ground. But her back was to the referee when she signaled, and the ball was out of Jaelyn’s hands too fast. It’s not a pass Jaelyn should have made. I imagine she won’t make that mistake again.
I have never been in a high pressure situation at the end of an NCAA game, on the ground with the world spinning around me, so I have no idea what it’s like in that spot.
What I do know is the leverage at the end of a close game can be cruel. UCLA was not better than Cal today. In the 2nd half, on the second day of a back to back, the Bears showed they had just as much fight as the Bruins. What they didn’t have is those two key plays go their way. And in the end, in the world of one and done, that can make all the difference.
- There was an a bit of an uproar about Kristine’s condition, on the broadcast and on social media. It certainly did not look good. Coach Gottlieb did not go into detail after the game, other than to say she was not feeling well but the medical staff cleared her. I have little to add that would be responsible except this: I have personally observed Kristine seeming out of sorts at both Stanford games -- at halftime as she walked past me at Maples, and again at the senior ceremony at Haas. I can make a cautious inference that whatever was ailing her was not a new development, but something the medical staff is aware of. And I also very strongly believe that no basketball program run by Lindsay Gottlieb is ever going to make a decision that knowingly endangers a player’s health. I hope Kristine feels better soon.
- We now wait 10 days to learn our NCAA tournament fate. As of this writing, the Bears have a 43 RPI. They have no bad losses on their record, but they only have one Top 40 win, the home game against Stanford. The overall body of work screams 8-10 seed. At their peak, however, the Bears are much more than that. We have seen glimpses of that peak during the two Stanford games, and against UCLA today. There is no shame in playing an elite squad down to the wire, as the Bears did today. They are fully capable of doing so in the postseason. So we will wait 10 days, and then we will reach the highest leverage point of every year. The NCAA Tournament. And we will see what the journey still has in store for us.