Bears’ offense explodes in second half to win at Utah

Junior center Talia Caldwell had three points and one assist in 13 minutes of play in Sunday's game.
Eugene W. Lau/File
Junior center Talia Caldwell had three points and one assist in 13 minutes of play in Sunday's game.

After the first half of Sunday’s game against Utah, the Cal women’s basketball team looked abysmal going into the locker room. Scoring only 21 points and shooting 29 percent from the field, the Bears’ only encouragement was that the Utes’ 19-point performance was even worse.

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s halftime speech worked like a charm. The squad looked energized and fast-paced in the second half, blazing through the opening minutes with a 10-0 run en route to a 63-56 win at the John M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We tried to play a little bit more Cal basketball (in the second half),” Gottlieb said. “I can give them a message, whether I deliver it soft and kindly or whether I get on them, and they really run with that message.”

Cal shot nearly 60 percent in the second half, doubling their first-half point total. Since opening their Pac-12 campaign with two losses, the Bears (13-5, 4-2 in the Pac-12) have won four straight, climbing to third in the conference standings behind Stanford and USC.

The Utes (8-8, 1-4) — who led the Pac-12 in scoring defense — controlled the tempo throughout the first half. The Bears, who normally start games with quick fastbreak possessions to throw off the opponents, struggled to get into their routine.

“We knew they were going to want to make us play slow and have it be a half court grinder,” Gottlieb said. “We kind of played right into that in the first half.”

Most of the first half was a dull ping-pong match of missed shots. Utah, whose perimeter shooting has been its offensive bread and butter this season, went 2-for-11 from 3-point range in the first half. Cal lacked its prowess on the offensive glass and had no second-chance points and only seven offensive rebounds.

Gennifer Brandon was held scoreless in the first half, but the sophomore forward scored the first seven points of the second half. After completing a three-point play, Brandon took advantage of a Utah gaffe and stole an inbounds pass for a layup. After the Utes missed a jumper, Brandon made a layup on the other end of the court to increase the Bears’ lead to 28-19 with 18 minutes left.

But like the Bears’, Utah’s offense began heating up as well. The Utes began draining their shots beyond the arc, thanks to a pair of threes from forward Michelle Plouffe. Their deficit was reduced to five with 13 minutes on the clock.

Despite Cal’s dominance on the glass and in the paint, its lead was shrunk to two due to Utah’s seven 3-pointers. But the Utes’ 3-point magic ran out in the last possessions of the game, and with it, their chance of a comeback. With two and a half minutes left, the Bears worked the shot clock to find guard Layshia Clarendon for an easy shot to extend the score to 55-51.

“We have been asking her to step up and be that leader from the guard spot and make big shots,” Gottlieb said. “I think coming off Colorado, she had a great level of confidence.”