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WBB Conversation: Two comebacks in one thrilling Senior weekend

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The Bears trailed by 12 to ASU and 20 to Arizona, yet ended the week a perfect 2-0

Snapshot

  • Win over ASU 69 - 60
  • Win over Arizona 82 - 76, OT

Currently: 16-11 (7-9, T-7th in Pac-12); RPI = 37

Upcoming:

  • at Washington, 7pm Friday, March 1, No TV, livestream only
  • at Washington State, Noon Sunday, March 3, Pac-12 Network

Nick, Friday pre-game

Well, we’ve reached senior weekend, albeit with different stakes than we were anticipating back in January.

This feels a bit like a full circle kind of thing. When Cal got swept in the desert in early January, it was something of a reality check for the 18-19 season. Now, with both schools visiting Berkeley with March on the horizon, it’s a chance for Cal to avenge those defeats and put their season on a different trajectory.

In addition to the emotional aspect of senior day, we were hoping that the stakes for these games were going to be top 4 Pac-12 tournament seeds and home NCAA tournament games. Instead, these games are about getting into the tournament, period. That’s a bummer, but this group of seniors deserves every opportunity to write their own happy ending.

Reef, Saturday post-game

I’m away at a conference today, so this might not be coherent, but I have to take a few minutes to celebrate last night’s win. Less robot, more emotion, these are my reactions from last night.

-- The two halves were microcosms for the ups and downs of this season. Riding a 5 game losing streak, on a sleepy Friday night, Haas was morgue during the first half. And the team was the walking dead. I was having a breakdown on Twitter because our opening offensive strategy was particularly frustrating. After ASU proved they could stifle Kristine in our first meeting (she was 5-17 from the field), we decided to see if they could do it again, by feeding the post for the first 20 minutes. Normally, when Kristine gets the ball one on one on the block with a defender behind her, it’s over. She scores at a very efficient rate. Not so against ASU. In the 1st half she was continually walled up at the basket, stepped out and took some bad shots, and ended the half 4-12. Yikes. Defense was passable but not spectacular (which I guess also means improved), but the futile offensive game plan sent us to the locker room down 7 (and fortunately so, as a botched possession ended with Recee throwing up a prayer that banked in at the buzzer).

--And then, for all the people who have (sometimes fairly) criticized coaching, we adjusted. In the 2nd half, we turned our perimeter players into primary options, let Kristine initiate out of the post to open shooters, and suddenly we put up 22 points in both the 3rd and 4th (after putting up only 25 (and really, just 22) in the whole 1st half). That’s 44 points in a half with only 29 possessions. Amazing. Shout outs in particular to Recee (20 points on 7-12 shooting) and Asha (18 points on 6-10), for stepping up and playing smart, assertive offense. Kristine ended up getting hers over the top and on the O boards, and we ran away easily. Coach also shortened the rotation to 6 (Kenzie, who was struggling bigtime on D, sat the 2H), with CJ the only sub. CJ’s box score line was unremarkable, but in her 19 minutes she made a real difference defensively. She understands pick and roll defense -- a struggle for a lot of our team all year. Kianna, Jaelyn...everyone just MADE THE RIGHT PLAY for a full 20 minutes. Not perfectly so, but at a higher level than we’ve seen in recent weeks. The result? A relatively easy win over a tough, top 20 RPI foe, and CPR for the fans at Haas, who finally started rocking the noise again.

-- We needed this one. It was a resume builder and took us squarely off the bubble and into comfortable NCAA territory. With USC and Arizona whiffing on upset bids (whew), we are now in sole possession of 8th place, and a game behind Arizona for the important 7th seed in the Pac-12 tournament. If we can beat Arizona on Sunday, we would hold the 7th seed by virtue of a tiebreaking win over stanford, and be in lock territory for the bigger dance. So, Sunday is huge. Arizona came within a bucket of upsetting stanford at Maples last night. Let’s get this one, for the seniors and for the health of our season.

Nick, Monday, AFTER A HOME SWEEP

This team just gives SO MUCH. So much what, you might ask? Everything, duh. Obviously, they give you so much basketball weirdness. So much Kristine. So much not shooting, then suddenly all the shooting. So much defensive angst. So much effort. But also the narrative, and the emotion. Losing four agonizing close games to Harvard, UCLA, Arizona, and ASU. Saving the season with an absurd win over Stanford before falling flat in Southern California, then playing two of their best halves of basketball back-to-back to earn comeback wins over both ASU and Arizona, and Coach G is crying on the mic after the game before another emotional senior ceremony. SO MUCH EVERYTHING!

Basketball, at its best, overwhelms me. Football is one discrete play following by a 40 second break, followed by another discrete event, followed by 3 minutes of commercials. Baseball, as much as I love it, is mostly staring at people standing around. But when you get games like the Arizona game, the list of noteworthy events gets too long, and it starts flowing together into one absurd tapestry that you had to watch in real time to appreciate. This is particularly pronounced at a WBB game that wasn’t televised. Until the final minutes when timeouts and official reviews intervened, the game went by so quickly as our comeback hopes ebbed and flowed.

So many things have to happen to come back from a 20 point 2nd half deficit, particularly when the other team is trying to slow the game to a crawl to protect their lead. But what amazed me was how many things didn’t go right. When you need to make up ground quickly, you aren’t supposed to fumble the ball at midcourt and allow an easy fast break layup. When every point matters, you aren’t supposed to be able to miss free throws. When every possession is precious, you’re not supposed to be able to recover from throwing the ball away with 33 seconds left.

Cal did all of that and found a way to win the game anyway, because Kenzie Forbes went nuclear, because Kristine decided that she was going to go around, over, and through every single player on the court for every rebound, and because C.J. West sacrificed her nose teeth to win Cal an extra possession when they needed it most.

As all of this was happening, I was pacing back and forth, incoherently clapping and fist pumping and putting my hands in my face after every play that felt like the play that would doom the comeback. I tried really hard to not let my lanky frame block the view of a 5 or 6 year old girl who was watching the game behind me to my left. She was possibly the most engaged small child I have ever seen at a Cal game. When Cal was on offense she stared intently while softly chanting ‘Cal has the ball, Cal has the ball.” She would react to foul calls with comic distress, the way you might react to a plot twist in a melodramatic movie. She would shriek with joyful delight at every made basket or free throw. She gave me an excellent high five after Recee’s 3 tied the game. I’m firmly convinced that her faith in the Bears was the narrow difference between ecstatic victory and bitter defeat.

Basketball is the best.

Reef, Tuesday

I can go a hundred different ways with this, but I guess I’ll go with robot first, to counterbalance your emotion. I said last week that I think there’s a tendency to overstate “clutch” or “choke” narratives, when really close game outcomes are often just coin flips. That our past difficulties in close games were not an indicator of how we would do in upcoming close games. Well, there you have it.

We certainly did more than enough down the stretch of Sunday’s game to lose it, if that’s the narrative you want to pick. But Arizona did a bunch to lose it as well, and ultimately, we made enough plays to *win* it. I sometimes think, unless you’re a top 5 team, most of what you hope for as February rounds into March is simply that the coin flips go your way.

I’ll also say that, first half struggles aside, these two games seem to affirm the season-long story we’ve been telling. The Bears have grown into an elite offensive team, and if they can defend with any reasonable degree of competence, they will win games. Unfortunately, the defense has been borderline INcompetent and that’s resulted in a ton of disappointing losses. But look at what happened this weekend. Our defense was virtually identical to the first go-round with the Arizonas. 108 defensive rating the first time vs ASU, 107 this time. 95 vs Arizona the first time, 93 this time. What changed?

We’ve become an ELITE offense. 104 the first time vs ASU, 121(!) this time. 85 the first time vs Arizona, 102 this time.

Yes, the distribution of shot-making was such that we fans were in maximum misery. We saved all our good shooting for late in the game, both times. But aren’t those final numbers the bottom line? Our offense has gone nuclear. And now it’s enough to prop up a defense that still struggles to be average. So we go from getting swept to sweeping...with a little help from late game variance. It was all just part of the logical long trajectory.

I guess this is where the robot and the heart have to diverge a bit. Because, on the one hand, things like effort and will and heart are just baked into the statistical outcome, right? The other team is playing with heart too, and (as I’ve said before), it’s not like when we fall a play or two short, it’s some magical failure of heart. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t human beings out there putting it all on the line to do whatever they can to get that critical W. That’s where I want to close my reflection. On Sunday, I was in awe of what everyone was giving out on the floor. As you said, it was so fast, and emotional, and up and down...it was like being in the middle of a tornado. Then through the storm, 7 players just kept fighting to climb that mountain.

  • Jaelyn Brown, who didn’t get a ton of minutes in this one, but who sparked us to stay in it early, and who was ready at the end, when we were short one big, to come in and box out and play D and hold the line.
  • Kianna Smith, ignoring her rough shooting day to play the steady, intense defense that has become her quietly consistent contribution, and then down one in OT, with no hesitation from three, splash.
  • Asha Thomas, also having a tough shooting day, was still the spark plug, directing traffic, hustling back in defensive transition, and when we needed free throws to ice it, all net.
  • CJ West, increasingly comfortable with her offensive role, running the floor and diving to the hoop, making herself available when teams direct too much attention to Kristine and our guards, 4 for 6 to give us 10 huge points, increasingly steady, heady defense, and then that dive to save a possession, losing a tooth but gaining the ball, selling out for her team because she knew we needed her to.
  • Kristine Anigwe, stifled again by a defense that wasn’t going to let her beat them, defending at the highest level we’ve seen from her in her career, and owning, absolutely owning the glass, wanting every single board, and getting damn near all of them that were within her reach.
  • Kenzie Forbes, benched in the 2H on Friday, coming in with no fear, dropping bomb after bomb to get us back in the game (5-6!), and coming up with (of all things) a huge defensive play...a steal in overtime to gain a possession and free throws.
  • Recee Caldwell, being the alpha. Taking over offensively when everybody else was struggling. Shredding Arizona off the bounce and from deep to lead the charge. 9-16 floor including 4-7 from deep, 24 huge points, and the biggest shot of her Cal career to tie the game late in regulation.

I think it’s important to acknowledge, whatever the shortcomings we’ve exhibited, and whatever the rest of this season may or may not hold for this team, that there are players out there who care deeply and leave everything they can on the court. Who show up game in and game out for each other and for our university. I am grateful that I was there to witness their effort last weekend, and am proud of how they fight for blue and gold. I also think it’s important to acknowledge Coach Gottlieb, who gets some flack from our fanbase sometimes, for a terrific coaching weekend. For keeping her team emotionally in it, and for her call to go zone during the comeback. It worked as well as anything was going to work against Aari McDonald, but just as importantly it kept Kenzie out of situations where she was getting torched defensively...and enabled her to stay in that game to catch fire.

I get to see this team one or two or three more times in Las Vegas, but I will miss what they brought to Haas Pavilion this year. They left it all out there on Newell Court. After last weekend, I hope they have a little left to take to Washington.

Nick, Wednesday

I’m glad you mentioned Recee in particular, because she’s the single most obvious catalyst to Cal’s newfound offensive mojo. In Cal’s first 21 games of the year, she scored 16+ points just once. Over the last 6 games she’s averaging 16 points. She’s upped her shooting volume and her shooting efficiency. She’s that extra consistent contributor this offenses needed to take the next step, and it’s the biggest reason I’ve got more hope for a potential post-season run than I did a few weeks ago.

I suppose we need to talk bracketology briefly. Cal’s 16-11 record doesn’t exactly scream tournament lock, but teams with 5 RPI top 50 wins that include wins over the RPI #4 and #19 without any RPI 100+ losses don’t ever really get left out of the WBB tournament. I think the only way Cal would get left out is if they lose out, which is wildly unlikely considering the schedule. If the Bears take care of business, they’ll be heading to Vegas playing to impact their seed.

So: We’re hoping that Cal will win twice up in Washington, then win the 7/10 game in the Pac-12 tournament (against most likely Washington State in an odd back-to-back), which will set up a potential Stanford/OSU gauntlet in Vegas. But I guess that’s getting a little bit ahead of ourselves.

Washington and Washington State have combined to go 1-22 against Pac-12 teams other than Colorado and themselves. Only a handful of those losses were even particularly close. They are thoroughly bad, and Cal should control both teams if they’re playing well, even on the road. These games will be something of a test of focus, with bigger tests remaining in the next few weeks.