Cal’s best but risky shot for glory

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The Cal women’s basketball team walked into Maples Pavilion last Sunday immediately following Stanford’s 10th consecutive victory over Cal. When it left, it had earned the marquee win of the regular season and more importantly, became serious contenders for the Pac-12 Title.

But how much of a real threat is this Cal squad?

Their recent play says they are legitimate. Closer examination says otherwise.

The Bears haven’t been this good since 2008, when they peaked at No. 3 in the rankings. Back then, they were led by senior Alexis Gray-Lawson, whose fantastic guard play got the team to the Sweet Sixteen and a disappointing loss to No. 1 UConn.

This season, guard Layshia Clarendon leads the Bears, and they’ve played very well up to this point of the season. Their first loss came to a rock-solid No. 4 Duke in early December. Cal’s other loss came from the first half of the Battle of the Bay to then No. 5 Stanford.

Difficult games to win, sure, but necessary if the Bears want to become serious conference challengers. It’s a sentiment Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb is more than familiar with.

“I thought that we had a really great program last year,” Gottlieb said before the season. “Now we want to jump into the elite. Whatever was good last year isn’t good enough anymore.”

Elite status belongs to those who can top other elite teams. It belongs to teams that can play as a cohesive unit, provide shutdown defense and make all the shots when they count.

The only problem is Cal can’t shoot. At least not when it counts.

The Bears’ two losses are indicative of such. A streak of ice-cold shooting from the floor squandered an early 13-10 lead against the Blue Devils and allowed them to go off on a 22-2 run. The same happened against Stanford too. After holding a 31-29 halftime lead at home, the Bears missed seven jumpers in a row. In the entire second half, they had only made three jumpers to 22 missed ones.

When opponents line up in man defense, Cal can afford the poor shooting. The team dominates the paint with a towering trio of bigs and two quick guards that are adept at driving. Lately though, teams have caught on. Teams are adapting, and the Bears need to follow suit.

The smarter, better teams are now starting to use zone to crowd the paint. When effectively used, it allows for doubling post players or trapping guards. It can also seal off driving lanes and make life in the paint a nightmare. When teams make the switch – and many have by halftime – Cal must rely on its outside shooting, an area that could use much improvement.

When the Bears played USC, a team far from contending for any title, they packed in the paint and sought to control the boards. The Trojans succeeded, reducing Cal to a paltry 9-38 shooting performance in the second half. Only a National Player of the Week performance from Gennifer Brandon salvaged the game in overtime.

The importance of shooting is even more prevalent in context of the marquee victory against Stanford. Gottlieb used sharpshooter Mikaela Lyles to great effectiveness, notching her career-best-matching 14 points were crucial in setting the tone against the Cardinal.

That included going 4-6 from beyond the arc, keeping the defense honest and respecting Cal’s range.

But Lyles is far from a mainstay on the offensive end, nor can anyone expect her to make jumpers at that rate for an extended period. The burden is upon the starters to improve shooting. It is also upon Gottlieb to game plan and adjust for better shooting opportunities.

If the Bears want to make scoring in the paint their modus operandi, they’ll have to give opposing defenses a reason to give them space.

If the Bears want to be elite, they’ll need more than just luck. Expecting a monster performance from one of the post players or guards isn’t crazy.

Relying on these performances, however, is.

Vincent Tzeng covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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