Despite last year’s Pac-12 Championship and impressive run to the Final Four, the No. 9 Cal women’s basketball team still has some work to do before it can truly be considered to be amongst the very best teams in college basketball.
The No. 2 Duke Blue Devils (1-0) overpowered the Bears (1-1) 70-58 on Sunday afternoon, but Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb recognized that the loss provided a valuable opportunity for her team to grow.
“This is why you schedule Duke,” Gottlieb stated. “We’re learning important lessons from this, and we are seeing that you have to focus on the little things. I’d rather have this experience than be 4-0 and not have a challenge.”
Cal’s Pac-12 Championship and NCAA Final Four banners from last season were revealed before tip-off, and the energy in the arena was running high. Playing in front of a packed crowd at Haas Pavilion, both teams seemed jittery early on, with missed layups, botched passes, and poor rebounding defining the first few minutes of the game.
It took nearly eight minutes for either team to break double figures, with Duke going up 10-7 at the 12:15 mark on a free throw by All-American guard Chelsea Gray.
Gray proceeded to lead her team on a 14-5 run, putting up seven points before Cal was forced to call timeout with 6:29 left in the half and down 24-12.
Gottlieb was visibly heated in the team huddle during the timeout, and the Bears returned to the court with intensity, closing out the half on a 13-5 run to cut the score to 30-25. Cal shot an abysmal 27.3% from the field in the first period, and was outrebounded by the Blue Devils 26 to 19. If not for some staunch defensive play of their own that limited Duke to a 38.7 field goal percentage, the Bears would have entered the locker room in a far deeper hole.
Unfortunately for the Bears, the second half was all Duke. Within three minutes the Blue Devils had built their lead back up to ten points, and the Bears never recovered. Duke bumped up its shooting percentage to 45.7% in the second half, and a string of three pointers by Chelsea Gray and fellow senior Richa Jackson buried Cal’s chances of a comeback.
Reflecting on her team’s improved second-half performance, Duke head coach Joanne McCallie credited her players with taking it upon themselves to pick up their game.
“The players were a little irritated with themselves about certain things that happened in the first half,” she said. “We didn’t make any major tweaks, it really just came from them.”
The Bears would finish the game shooting a subpar 32.3% from the field and an even worse 29.4% from three-point range. Duke’s combination of zone defense and a suffocating full court press prevented the Bears from ever finding a sustained rhythm on offense, and junior guard and top returning scorer Brittany Boyd was held to only 4-of-12 shooting.
More importantly, Duke outmuscled Cal in the paint, outrebounding them 46 to 39. After the game, Coach Gottlieb was quick to recognize the influence that rebounding had on her team’s loss.
“If I had to pick one stat, that’s it,” she said. “They were more aggressive to the ball. They are bulky and powerful and strong, and that bothered us.”
Despite picking up a loss, Cal’s coaches and players are confident that the experience of playing the second-ranked team in the nation will help them improve upon their play as the season progresses.
“It’s a learning lesson,” said senior guard Afure Jemerigbe, Cal’s leading scorer on the day with 16 points. “We’re going to watch film and nitpick on every little thing, and we will get better.”
Josh Netter covers women’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].