With 33 seconds left and Cal leading by just 66-64, UCLA guard Nirra Fields had one more drive to make something happen and tie up the game. She drove inside and met a wall of Cal defenders. After missing her first shot and grabbing her rebound, Cal senior Reshanda Gray denied the shot attempt, and Mikayla Cowling secured the rebound and, essentially, the win. After hitting some free throws, the Bears survived another close game, winning 70-64 at home.
“We’ll take this one and learn a lot from it,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “And we’ll look forward to getting ready for Sunday because we like sweeps in this building.”
Early on, UCLA made it clear it was not going to let the Cal women’s basketball team beat it with Gray. Playing a 2-3 zone with an emphasis on denying the post, the Bruins tried to force the Bears to score from the perimeter, double-covering Gray and the other Cal bigs and preventing them from any back-to-the-basket opportunities. But this strategy didn’t work due to the strong play of other Cal players.
Cowling and Mercedes Jefflo were nailing threes, and even though the Bruins tried keeping the ball out of the paint, things such as pump-fakes from beyond the arc, jukes and screens shook the Bruins’ perimeter defense out of position. Once Cal was able to catch UCLA’s defense off-balance, passing and driving lanes opened up. In addition, the Bruins also turned the ball over often and missed most of their shots, which led to fast-break opportunities on the other side. Offensively, the Bears got almost anything they wanted.
With a missing Brittany Boyd, who was sidelined in Thursday night’s game due to a head injury suffered Sunday, the Bears had to play without their ace. This season, Boyd has been relied upon heavily as the floor general, but another huge part of her game has been her defense — Boyd’s tendency to harass ball-handlers has led to many wins this season.
With no Boyd on Thursday, Cal needed backup point guards Jefflo and Gabby Green to step up. And for the most part, they answered the call. UCLA did not look comfortable or organized on offense. Almost every shot was contested, off-the-ball screens were not generating open shots, and the Bruins rarely found separation.
Except for the last three minutes of the first half.
With a 37-23 lead and 2:51 go before intermission, it seemed as if Cal might have pushed the lead to 20 or more. But the Bears did not close well. Turning the ball over three times and and allowing UCLA to go on an 8-1 run, the Bears went into halftime with a lead of just 38-31, even though they had been the dominant team for most of the half.
Even though the defense was doing a solid job, holding UCLA to sub-35 percent shooting, the Bruins, because of Cal’s 19 turnovers, were able to take 18 more shots than the Bears. So despite the poor shooting from UCLA, the visiting team had the ball more.
Things wouldn’t get easier for Cal in the second period. UCLA went with man-to-man pressure defense and eventually caught up to take a 52-49 lead at the 9:14 mark. This was a real bummer for the Bears, who were in control early and looked like they were going to get a blowout. After a 3-pointer from Jefflo with Cal trailing by three, the score was tied up at 52-52 with 8:52 left.
It was a new game.
With a 6-0 run around the five-minute area, the Bears got back some of their lead and, down the stretch, held on to about a one-possession lead.
In the end, Thursday’s matchup ended in a way that has been reflective of the past two weeks — not perfect, but good enough. Cal played an ugly game, but UCLA played an even uglier game. And, in the end, the Bears came through when it counted and have now won eight games straight.
“At the end of it, when people are crowning champions and doing NCAA seeds and stuff, nobody talks about each game except for wins and losses,” Gottlieb said.
Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].