It’s not often that the Cal women’s basketball team peaks in the first 20 minutes.
A “second-half” team by nature, the squad generally uses the first half to feel for a rhythm before it comes out all pistons burning to stifle the opponent in the final period. It’s an easily traceable pattern, most clearly evidenced by the 17-0 second-half comeback at Colorado on Jan. 12.
It’s not often that the Bears plateau in the second half, but as the team proved in its rematch with the Buffs on Saturday afternoon, it’s also not impossible.
Cal (22-7, 13-4) easily cruised past Colorado en route to a 64-43 victory and a clinch of second place in the conference. For the second game in a row, the team kept its opponent to below 50 points at Haas Pavilion. However, the chasm between the final scores was entirely the product of a first-half spark.
The Bears were always in control of the contest, right from junior guard Layshia Clarendon’s fadeaway that gave Cal the first basket of the day. The home team quickly leapt ahead by 10 on ensuing shots from Talia Caldwell and Brittany Boyd. In that span, the only opposing bucket came from Colorado’s Chucky Jeffery.
Jeffery was the lone bright star in the Buffs’ otherwise lackluster lineup. The swingman paced her team with 18 points and earned her No. 7 spot in conference scoring, feverishly sinking both long-range jumpers and layups.
“There aren’t a lot of guards that can post you up, come off, shoot the three, drive, come off ball screens, play the point,” Clarendon said. “You just got to give it your best shot, get the posts to help.”
Fortunately, Caldwell was ready for that challenge. Gutsy offense translated to productive defense as the junior big played arguably her best defensive game of the season, notching six boards and sinking 11 points in the paint.
In fact, the Bears’ overall paint play completely smoked the Buffs, whose defense put up no fight at the post. By the final buzzer, Cal racked up 33 points in the paint, in comparison to Colorado’s meager 16.
“I said to (the team), ‘own the paint,’” said Cal coach Linsday Gottlieb. “That might be post touches, that might be getting into the lane off the bounce. Sometimes it might collapse, but we were really focused on owning the paint.”
When compared with the snooze against Utah two days ago, Saturday’s game featured a Cal team returned to all its former glory: a squad that relies on speed in transition, jumping rebounds from the bigs and drives by guards such as Boyd and Eliza Pierre. Pierre in particular played trench warfare for the first 20 minutes, utilizing a gritty and hands-up style of play that led to two uncharacteristic 3-pointers in the final minutes.
The only difference between Saturday and that former Cal glory: that team peaked in the first half. At the break Cal led by a comfortable 38-25 gap. With the lead all but etched in stone, the Bears came out in the second half focused more than ever on holding Colorado down.
Such a focus translated into a brutal and stifling defensive pressure that held the Buffs to a pitiful 18 points in the second half.
But that same defensive pressure also equaled a disjointed offensive effort to open up the second period. The points bonanza from the first half evaporated into a stalemate as both teams struggled to finish baskets. Both teams sputtered through a six-minute drought.
“Our defense fuels our offense a lot,” Clarendon said. “When we get into a few offensive lulls, we just always have to look back to our defense to pick it up.”
Fortunately for the Bears, Clarendon herself was the one to offensively set a spark on an uncontested fastbreak to push her team to an 11-point lead that only widened as the minutes wound down.