Thursday night was never a guarantee for the Cal women’s basketball team.
After receiving a first-round bye with the No. 2 seed, the Bears entered the Galen Center prepared to face No. 10-seeded Colorado in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.
Based on those standings alone, it should have been a blowout. But Cal needed forty minutes of gritty play to secure a 68-59 win.
In their tilt the day before, the Buffs threw numbers out the window. On Wednesday evening the squad manhandled No. 7 Utah in a 55-41 upset. Powered by a 32-15 chasm in the first half, the Buffs then shut down the Utes’ scoring for nine minutes in the final period.
Then there is the fact that Colorado has never made it easy for the Bears, and Thursday night was more of the same.
In two previous conference matchups, the Buffs forced Cal to earn its wins. In January, only a 17-0 comeback run in the second period saved the Bears from a potential upset. More than a month later, Colorado tied the score in the first half before Cal’s press and points in the paint overpowered its opponents.
The Bears opened up the Thursday tilt on a quick 10-0 run. The Buffs didn’t muster a shot until nearly five minutes into the game off a layup from Chucky Jeffery.
“There was a point in the first half where we could have stopped playing and it would have been a blowout,” Colorado head coach Linda Lappe said.
Unable to physically overpower the Bears, the Buffs decided to run a smaller lineup and kept the action near the baskets to avoid mid-court confrontation. Cal staggered whenever its opponent drove to the paint.
More than anything else, Colorado dictated the pace of the contest.
It is the trap into which Cal consistently falls. The Bears prefer a fast and controlled tempo, but whenever an opponent like Colorado plays slow and scrappy ball Cal seamlessly plays into that pace. For nearly four minutes toward the end of the first half, Cal remained stagnantly stuck at 29 points.
The Buffs, on the other hand, used that time to launch a lethal attack that changed the momentum and the Buffs’ deficit.
Propelled by three treys – two of which came back-to-back from Brittany Wilson – Colorado tore through Cal’s shaky 11-point lead to reduce it to a meager six points. At the end of the half, Cal was barely ahead, 35-27.
Wilson opened up the final period with another 3-point attempt, but it fell short. It looked like whatever momentum the Buffs built in the final minutes before halftime evaporated.
Yet something must have stuck. Colorado got within four points early in the second half before Cal called a timeout.
The regroup didn’t help the Bears. Soon after, Cal collapsed into a nine-minute field-goal drought. It was eerily similar to what Colorado forced Utah into the day before.
Cal’s saving grace, absurdly, was the one area of play that it has lagged in all year: free throws. Ranked 327 of 336 Division I schools, Cal struggled throughout the season at the charity stripe.
But in the field-goal drought, the team went 7-8 at the top of the key.
With the final score already on the board and the final seconds winding down, Colorado reached for one last 3-pointer. It hit the rim, and junior guard Eliza Pierre lunged for it, ensuring her team ended in possession of both the ball and the win.
“They just didn’t fall for us tonight,” Lappe said.
The Bears will next play at the Staples Center in the semifinals Friday evening at 8:30 p.m.