Power Rankings: Cal women’s basketball must develop role players

Marcus Gedai/Staff

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After its Final Four run in 2013, the Cal women’s basketball team lost several impact players but proceeded to bounce back the following year with a younger squad surrounding its core players. With another year of experience under their belt, the Bears return stronger than ever, determined to make another run at the Pac-12 title they lost to Stanford just last season.

In her second season as head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb captured the Pac-12 title and took her team all the way to the Final Four of the NCAA tournament. But she was forced to retool her roster around forward Reshanda Gray and guard Brittany Boyd after losing the senior class that had brought her so much success.

The Bears returned two All-Americans last season in Gray and Boyd, as well as senior All-Pac-12 first-team player Gennifer Brandon. But after undergoing offseason surgery to repair a right tibial stress fracture, Brandon was forced to sit out 10 of the first 12 games of the season. Despite this, the Bears started 9-3 on the backs of Gray and Brandon.

With Boyd its floor general and Gray its tank, Cal displayed impressive offensive firepower over the course of the season. Led by their one-two punch, the Bears even broke the 100-point barrier in an overtime thriller against Oregon.

The Bears finished the season 22-10 overall and 13-5 in the Pac-12, good enough for second in the conference. In a first-round matchup against Fordham in the NCAA tournament that featured eight ties and nine lead changes in the second half alone, Boyd hit the go-ahead jumper with 14 seconds left for the narrow victory. But Cal was bounced from the tournament by Baylor the next round, 75-56, with Boyd playing through a right ankle injury.

Depth was a major issue for the Bears last season, and it was evident in their lack of a second-string point guard to back up Boyd. When Boyd left the floor to rest or because of foul trouble, Gottlieb was forced to play Afure Jemerigbe at point guard. The Bears also had little depth behind Gray and hit lulls in scoring whenever she left the floor.

Despite losing a major cog in Brandon, Cal projects to bounce back, improving its role players as well as its main stars. Gottlieb’s quick-paced tempo complements Boyd and Gray with the Bears running up and down the court every chance they get. Gottlieb plays to the team’s strengths, allowing Boyd and other wings to gamble and trap around the perimeter to force turnovers, leading to easy buckets in transition.

While Cal prefers to play in the full court, Gottlieb’s half-court sets feature Gray in the post. Averaging 16.8 points on 59.1 percent shooting, along with 8.8 rebounds, Gray proved nearly unstoppable in single coverage. When the ball wasn’t thrown down low to Gray, the Bears put the ball in the hands of Boyd, who played an equally vital role on the team as her partner. Considered a quadruple threat, Boyd averaged an incredible 14.7 points, six assists, 6.6 rebounds and 2.9 steals. With the tandem of Boyd and Gray, the team has a more-than-solid core to build around.

As legitimate contenders for the Pac-12 title, the Bears surrounded Boyd and Gray with capable role players. Among those is Gray’s front-court partner, Justine Hartman. A finesse post player who can stand her ground down low, Hartman defended the more physical players to prevent Gray from getting into foul trouble. Mercedes Jefflo, team’s best perimeter defender outside of Boyd, similarly proved capable on that end of the floor. Primarily a slasher, Jefflo gives the Bears versatility, as she can play three positions.

Heading into her fourth season as head coach, Gottlieb has all the pieces to compete against any team in the nation. In a tough conference, Cal is among five teams that have a real shot at the Pac-12 title. If the Bears are to dethrone Stanford as conference champions and make a deep run into the NCAA tournament, the role players have to step up to complement the elite play of Boyd and Gray.

Winston Cho is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho