The four-month grind of the regular season came to a close last Sunday for the Cal women’s basketball team with a 86-61 loss to Stanford. The Bears ended the journey with a 22-8 record, their best since the 2008-2009 season.
But Cal (22-8, 13-5) has no time to reflect and pat itself in the back. The postseason looms immediately on the horizon, and the flurry of this next run is already underway.
The Bears’ postseason sojourn starts at the Pac-12 tournament, a prologue to March Madness. With expectations of a rematch against top-ranked Stanford in the championship game, the No. 2 seeded Cal will start its conference tournament against No. 10 Colorado at 5 p.m. in Galen Center.
As one of the first four teams in the conference, the Bears received a first round bye. On Wednesday, the squad watched two other teams set the first round aflame. Colorado and last-place Arizona upset No. 7 Utah and No. 5 UCLA, respectively.
“The story of the conference has been that anyone can beat anybody in a given night,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “We’ve done a good job separating ourselves from the others, and that’s why we finished in second place.”
Despite being the lower seed in the contest, Colorado was by far the better team when compared to Utah. Backed by guard Chucky Jeffery’s 20 points and 14 rebounds, the Buffaloes slammed the Utes, 55-41.
Regardless of the victor, either Colorado or Utah would have been fine for Cal to take in the second round. The Bears posted a perfect 4-0 record against the two Rocky Mountain schools this season, allowing either opponent to reach more than 60 points in the four contests.
The Bears’ solution to neutralize the Buffaloes is relatively simple: stop Jeffery from shooting. Jeffery, seventh in the conference in scoring with 15.2 points, has been arguably the best guard in the league. As a member of the All-Conference and All-Defense teams, Jeffery has been the only consistent threat in a team full of mercurial talent.
Cal experienced the best of Jeffery last January at Boulder. The red-hot junior carried the Buffaloes to a 10-point lead over the Bears, scoring 21 points and three 3-pointers.
But Jeffery is no Superman, and in the second half Gottlieb improvised a tight defensive leash around Jeffery. As the defense stifled the Buffs guard from the perimeter, Colorado’s burden was placed on the surrounding cast.
The Buffaloes sans Jeffery had trouble generating points, and the Bears engineered a huge comeback win in the dying minutes of the game.
The gameplan is simple, but it won’t be easy. Upsets and madness are brewing in Los Angeles, continuing on the overarching theme of this Pac-12 season.
On paper, as the de facto No. 2 team in the conference, the Bears are slated as shoo-ins to the title game, most likely against top-ranked Stanford.
But very little in the conference is a shoo-in. After a game like last Sunday, Cal can use some polishing before taking the Galen Center court. From the basketball fundamentals like free throw shooting to the complexities like full court press, the Bears need refinements in Basketball 101 to make the deep postseason push.
“We have some work to do,” Gottlieb said. “We have to just focus on Thursday at 5 p.m. right now.”