Making it all the way to the Pac-12 championships, all that the Cal women’s basketball team had to do was get past Stanford in the championship game to give the Bears the school’s first Pac-12 championship. The Cardinal, however, had the upperhand for most of the second half, and although the Bears made things dramatic late in the game, Cal fell, 61-60.
“We took a punch, literally and figuratively,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
With Stanford familiar with Cal — the two teams had played each other twice before the final — it was clear what the Cardinal wanted to do, which was to make players besides Reshanda Gray, a forward, and Brittany Boyd, a guard, beat them. Fully aware of the dangers of Cal’s deadly duo, the Cardinal placed extra emphasis on Gray, putting multiple bodies on her in the paint. After getting called for an offensive foul at the 11:40 mark in the second half, Gray picked up her fourth foul and was forced to sit until later in the game.
Although Boyd was not locked down by Stanford, Cal’s star point guard was sidelined for most of the first half after taking an elbow right under her right eye from Stanford’s Brittany McPhee on a rebounding play at the 16:01 mark and had to get stitches in the middle of the game.
“Just a little sore,” Boyd said on her injury after the game.
But even with the usual stars going through woes, the Bears did get contributions from the younger players on the team, which Cal desperately needed. With Courtney Range, Mikayla Cowling and Mercedes Jefflo forced to take the helm, the trio of underclassman combined for 47 points and had Cal up by 25-23 after one.
In the second half, however, Stanford took over. With Gray sitting out, the Cardinal took advantage of Cal’s limited size and built its offense by attacking inside. At the 4:23 mark, Cal was trailing, 55-49, when its full-court pressure generated a turnover that led to Jefflo making a layup at the basket, only for it to be called an offensive foul. With the Bears struggling to take care of the ball and run offense, they found themselves trailing, 49-57, with just over three minutes left.
Despite Cal’s late-game efforts, it wasn’t enough. But the Bears did give the Cardinal a good scare. Cal was down, 59-53, but a Cowling layup, a missed Stanford free throw, a Boyd layup and a forced jump ball for another Stanford turnover cut the Cardinal’s lead to 61-57, with eight seconds left. But Cal couldn’t get the quick basket it needed. Jefflo did end up nailing the buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but by the time her shot went in, Stanford was already celebrating its Pac-12 championship victory.
Prior to Stanford, the Bears powered their way through the Pac-12 brackets beating Washington, 69-53, in the first round and Colorado, 68-55, in the semifinals.
Against the Huskies, trailing by as many as eight points midway through the first half, Cal took a little while to get things going. The Bears, however, eventually figured things out, starting with the defense then opening up the offense with the hot hand of Jefflo, who shot 4-7 from beyond the arc and finished with 16 points. Cal quickly came back and took control to take a 32-23 lead entering halftime, dominating in basically every statistical category and dispatching the Huskies in a blowout win to earn a spot in the semifinals.
With Oregon State getting booted off the tournament early, all the Bears had in their way was a tired and drained Colorado in the semifinals. The Beavers had trouble putting away the Buffaloes, as Colorado’s Lexy Kresl bombed over the Beavers’ dam of hope of facing Cal in the semi-finals. Failing to break the game open, the tournament favorite was neck-and-neck with Colorado, and the Beavers could not keep Kresl off the 3-point line, where she shot 5-5 and finished with 19 points.
When Cal met up with the Buffaloes, the Bears held Colorado to just 32 percent shooting and forced 18 turnovers. The key to the Bears’ semifinals success was Boyd, who ran in transition any chance she could get in order to speed the game up against Colorado. Perhaps the most important thing she did in the game, however, was rebounding.
Finishing with 10 rebounds, Boyd took on the responsibility of tracking down the long rebounds from deep Colorado attempts, since none of the Buffaloes could duplicate the sharpshooting success they had against Oregon State. Though many shots landed where neither team would have a great position, Boyd was by far the most active player and made herself a part of almost every rebounding opportunity. As a result, the Bears got more possessions and had more chances to increase their lead.
Despite the loss, Gottlieb is still confident Cal performed strongly enough to host the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The season is far from over — the Bears are projected to be a No. 4 seed and look like they have room for growth before the Big Dance.
Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].