With 13 seconds left on the clock, Arizona State’s Katie Hempen fired a three in transition off a missed free throw by Mikayla Cowling to give the Sun Devils a 49-48 lead. Up to that point, the Cal women’s basketball team was ahead the entire game, but a second-half Sun Devils surge erased a double-digit deficit. With almost no time left, the Bears needed one more play to pull off the upset on the road against the No. 10 team in the country.
Off the inbounds pass, Cowling caught the ball and dribbled up court, where she passed it off to teammate Mercedes Jefflo, who was outside the 3-point line in front of her team’s bench. After passing it to Jefflo, Cowling positioned herself in the post near the top of the key, where she drove to her right and attempted a scoop shot in traffic. Cowling’s attempt bounced off the back rim. But freshman Penina Davidson, whom the Sun Devils left unboxed, tipped the rebound to herself under the basket.
Without putting the ball back on the floor, Davidson pivoted, turned and sent a shot off the glass over four Arizona State defenders in the paint. With the Sun Devils’ defense reluctant to foul, nobody made a real attempt at a block as Davidson banked the game winner right before the buzzer went off to secure Cal the 50-49 victory in Wells Fargo Arena.
Leading up to that point, the Bears were in control. Powered by an elite defensive performance in the first half, Cal made sure nothing came easy against host Arizona State. Holding the Sun Devils to just 20 percent shooting and also forcing 10 turnovers in the first half, the Bears established a lead that had the home favorites playing an uphill battle all game.
In a defensive performance reminiscent of last Monday’s showing against Washington, when Cal prevented the Huskies from scoring anything in the last five minutes, the Bears made sure every shot in the paint was contested. Cal improved at guarding the 3-point line, which was a problem the last time these two teams met when Arizona State went 7 of 13 from beyond the arc. On Sunday, Arizona State shot just 1 of 10 from three in the first half and 3 of 13 to finish the game.
But one 3-pointer that Cal couldn’t guard successfully was one of the biggest shots in the game, the shot that put the Sun Devils ahead. Using a double screen from the top of the key, Hempen freed herself from Cowling. At that point, it was up to Davidson to pick up the switch. But Davidson was screened, too. With the Bears scrambling, slightly confused and out of position, Hempen dribbled and made a step-back move to give herself separation for an open three.
Throughout most of the game, the Bears were aggressive and were consistent in sprinting to run down 3-point shooters. But the Sun Devils had something sneaky drawn up for Hempen, and Cal was not ready to effectively guard it.
Despite its poor start, Arizona State is still a top team, nationally. So a comeback and second-half Sun Devils surge was almost inevitable. It also didn’t help the Bears that their senior leaders, Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd, were unavailable late in the game with Gray fouling out and Boyd sidelined from an injury she suffered after she fouled Hempen.
In the end, Cal showed that its team is more than just two players. Even though Cowling couldn’t convert on her game-winning scoop shot, her attempt was crucial in leading to the game winner. When Cowling drove down the lane, the Sun Devils sold out and prioritized contesting Cowling’s last shot.
Because of this, Davidson was left all alone in the corner, in front of her teammates sitting on the bench. So when Cowling’s shot caromed off the rim, Davidson was able to sneak into the paint and, without having to fight through or get physical, put herself in position to tip the rebound to herself. And after that, it all came down to Davidson and her soft touch against a soft Sun Devils interior defense.
Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].