After Thursday, there might finally be a moratorium on the Los Angeles road trip.
To close out 2011, the Cal women’s basketball team suffered an embarrassing defeat to a second-rate UCLA squad. The Bruins were 6-6 overall — the utter definition of mediocre — and in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
That night, the Bears outscored the opponent in the paint, off the bench and on second chances. Yet Cal scrambled and barely shot 30 percent from the floor, and when the clock hit zero, the Bruins were on the winning end of the 60-55 decision. Cal returned to Haas a humbled team.
But on Thursday, the Bears have a shot to even the score when they host UCLA in a 7 p.m. rematch at Haas Pavilion.
“There’s no question that we’ve had this weekend circled on our calendar since then,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “Now we have an opportunity to show that maybe we’re a better team than what showed up at L.A.”
That better team is one that relies on more than a couple strategies or players to spark a win. In Los Angeles, the Bears (17-6, 8-3 in the Pac-12) were caught unawares. The team was young and so heavily dependent on its post play that other positions rarely took chances.
But throughout January, guards such as junior Layshia Clarendon and sophomore Lindsay Sherbert stepped up to the challenge of diversifying Cal’s attack. After nailing key shots beyond the arc, Sherbert now leads the Bears in 3-point percentage.
Clarendon, meanwhile, became Cal’s de facto playmaker, especially in the overtime thriller at Stanford when she sank a 3-pointer and two free throws to tie the score and send the contest to extra minutes.
And while true freshman Brittany Boyd still retains the flash that makes her a hometown favorite, she’s since matured into a legitimate collegiate threat.
Her two 19-point performances against Stanford and Arizona State, as well as 10 steals against the latter, only bolster that reputation.
“That was a really big lesson for us, that we can’t rely only on one thing,” Gottlieb said. “We can’t rely only on the interior. We can’t let people push us around, so to speak.”
But UCLA (12-10, 7-4) has been operating on a similar formula. The Bruins also saw drastic improvement from their guards in the last month, especially from what Gottlieb calls their “big three” — Thea Lemberger, Markel Walker and Rebekah Gardner.
Those players, as well as the rest of the team, combine speed in transition to once again rival Cal’s own aggressive and fast-paced style of play.
Then there is the hot streak that came out of nowhere. Across four games, two of which went to overtime, the Bruins quietly built a winning streak that gave them a winning conference record for the first time since that December tilt with Cal. The triumphs also catapulted UCLA to No. 3 in the conference – one rung beneath Cal.
The Bruins are a better team than the one that tripped up the Bears more than a month ago. But Cal isn’t in this for revenge or redemption so much as closure. The team wants to see its growth pay off against the enemy that originally sparked it.
“(The players) understand that there’s nothing more motivating than having a second chance at a team, and just being better than what we were in a tough loss,” Gottlieb said.