Cal falls to Rutgers in season opener

If only the Cal women’s basketball team could have ended Sunday’s matinee against No. 16 Rutgers at the half, the Bears would have emerged with an upset win to start the season.

After 20 minutes at the Luis Brown Athletic Center in Brunswick, NJ. the Scarlet Knights had taken more shots and frequently pressed inside the paint. But whenever Cal got its hands on the ball, it made the most of it.

However, that was the first half. Within seconds in the second half, Rutgers had exploded on a 12-point rampage and exploited free throws in a half that left the Bears grasping through a series of 10-point deficits en route to a 73-70 loss.

To restart play, the Scarlet Knights’ Erica Wheeler nailed a 3-pointer to tie the contest. Cal’s Gennifer Brandon responded with two points to put her team back in the lead, but within minutes Rutgers was on a tear.

“I thought we had more chances in the first half to build a bigger lead,” Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “But then they came out and played that quintessential Rutgers basketball, and we didn’t respond well enough.”

Rutgers is notoriously tireless and has a deep bench. The Scarlet Knights’ Monique Oliver and Wheeler were in nearly every one of Cal’s passing lanes and quickly racked up points.

Then came Rutgers’ famously dreaded 55 press, a lethal cross between a zone and a man-to-man that effectively shut Cal down.

“Everyone knows the 55-press,” Gottlieb said. “You know it is coming, but you can’t prepare for it. Sometimes we weren’t strong enough with the ball. I don’t think we attacked it through the middle, which we wanted to do, until later on.”

There were glimpses of Cal’s potential in the early minutes of the game. Rutgers pressured Cal inside the paint to force the latter into 3-point shots. The Scarlet Knights also planned to use their speed to outrun the opponents.

But the Bears surprised by keeping pace and drawing fouls. The Bears earned 20 free throws, while the Scarlet Knights only reached the charity stripe four times.

When Cal managed to break through a Rutgers press, its post play was impressive. The Bears steadily clung to a lead for most of the first half. At its height, Cal’s lead stretched to nine but dwindled down to three points at halftime.

In the second half, the Bears couldn’t keep up with Rutgers’ depth

But Cal refused to hand the Knights the game. The Bears still hung on and in the final few plays of the game managed to pull within three with 1.8 seconds left. Freshman Brittany Boyd’s shot hit the rim, and the final buzzer sounded to preserve Rutgers’ victory.