Tightening the screws

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Cal sophomore Gabby Green waits for the ref to hand her the ball. There are only 9.7 seconds left, and the Bears trail by two against Utah. A loss means the end of the season. A win keeps Cal alive, for now.

As soon as the ref hands the ball to Green, the Bears start moving. Junior Courtney Range pops out to the near wing, calling for a pass. Sophomore Penina Davidson stands far beyond the arc, ready to receive the pass if Green runs out of time.

But the forwards are nothing more than a diversion.

Instead, the real action is in a jumble of players in the middle of the court. Freshman Asha Thomas sets a back screen on Mikayla Cowling’s defender, freeing Cowling up for a run at the rim.

Green lobs her the ball and Cowling grabs it, with just enough space to go up for a layin to tie the game.

Swish.

A perfect play to end the quarter gives the Bears the perfect result. Overtime.

Although Cal would go on to beat the Utes and advance to the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Tournament, plays like this were far too rare for the Bears this season. In fact, with Cal’s season officially over and the Bears not having even sniffed the postseason, it’s clear that they need to improve. This gives Cal a chance — or rather forces it — to address the deficiencies in the minutiae of its game, a step that will prove crucial when the Bears are more ready to contend next season.

And one thing that stood out was Cal’s consistent failure to draw up successful plays at the end of quarters. Other than some notable exceptions — such as Cowling’s shot — the Bears’ offense was noticeably stagnant on the last possessions of each quarter.

Cal’s plan in those possessions was just about always the same this year, especially when Green was on the floor.

No matter how much time was left at the beginning of the play, Green would get the ball and dribble near halfcourt, not initiating action until there were about eight seconds left on the clock. Meanwhile, off the ball, Cowling and whichever other perimeter player was on the floor — often times Thomas or freshman MaAne Mosley — would run around, cutting and slicing around the court, looking for either an open jumper or a path to the rim.

But this presented many challenges for the Bears.

For one, Green is not a shooting threat, as she made less than 30 percent of her shots and only 22.9 percent from beyond the arc. This allowed her defender to sag off her to cut off a drive and her passing lanes. Add that to the Bears’ already spacing-devoid lineup, especially with Mosley on the court, and you have a problem. It was not a rare occurrence to see all five defenders play with one foot in the paint as Green dribbled out the clock.

With the middle of the floor so cluttered, it becomes impossible for the Bears to go to their bread and butter: lobbing the ball to freshman forward Kristine Anigwe in the low post. With that option essentially taken away, Cal generally looks to a pick-and-roll to initiate action at the end of the game.

This is strange for a couple of reasons. First, the Bears almost never utilize pick-and-rolls in their offense other than at the end of quarters. Second, and more importantly, pick-and-rolls don’t work as intended with spacing as bad as what Cal was faced with. They’re especially easy to stop when the ball handler isn’t a threat to shoot the ball, as the player defending the screener can simply slip under the pick and cut off the ball-handler, in this case Green, from penetrating into the paint.

With Green blocked from penetrating, she couldn’t draw in the whole defense and kick out to open shooters. And because the Bears don’t get going until there were only a few seconds left on the clock, Cal’s possessions have one of two results.

Either Green is forced into taking a midrange jumper, or she has to pass to someone who does the same thing. And more often than not, being basketball’s least efficient shot, it had the same ending.

Clank.

Plays such as this are something that the Bears need to improve on, as they must do more than simply bank on improving because their players will be a year older if they plan on taking big steps next season — and they should, after coming short of even the Women’s NIT this season.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian