Balanced offense lifts Cal women’s basketball over Wichita State, 78-66 in 1st round of NCAA tourney

Rachael Garner/Staff

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Although Friday marked the end of school and the beginning of spring break for students, it was also the start of the Cal women’s basketball team’s March Madness campaign and its road to the finals in Tampa. To start the tournament off, the No. 4-seeded Bears hosted No. 14 seed Wichita State at Haas Pavilion, where they cruised their way to a 78-66 win. Cal will now move on to the next round against Texas.

“It’s a surprise to you all, but it’s something that we knew we had it in us,” said Cal senior Brittany Boyd. “We had really good ball movement. We found open players. We played together, and we played team basketball.”

It took the Bears a while to get their offense going though, but that was fine because their defense kept the score low. With Wichita State shooting poorly, Cal could afford to have a few sloppy possessions and bad shots because the Shockers didn’t look like they were going to blow up the score anytime soon.

Leading the way for Cal in the first half was senior forward Reshanda Gray, who, as expected, attracted most of the attention because there were multiple bodies on her whenever she was near the ball. But as she usually does, she still found a way to finesse her way around the traffic to come up with 10 points plus six rebounds. Mercedes Jefflo was second in scoring for Cal during that half with nine points.

With Gray’s and Jefflo’s offense paired with the vicious defense Cal was playing, Wichita State had little answers and looked a step slow during almost the entire second half.

For Gray, the second half was pretty much the same story. No matter what Wichita State tried to do to deny Gray the ball, Cal frequently found a way to get her the ball. Whether it was by swinging the ball around, threading the needle between defenders or simply letting Gray bang her way to the basket, the Bears found large success in feeding their Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“I try to better myself when I do have the ball to be smart and to be aware of my surroundings. And just to be aggressive because I know people are coming for me,” Gray said. “So I just try to get in position where I’m able to score, and if I’m not able to score, I can find my teammates.”

But despite the offense’s dominant play, foul calls against Cal hurt it midway through the second half. With Gray picking up three fouls in less than 10 minutes, Cal already had six fouls called, despite 12:20 still left in the game. In that span of fouls being called, the Shockers went on a 9-0 run and cut the once double-digit lead to 47-43.

But that was as close as Wichita State could get.

“At the huddle, I was pretty calm and clear and said, ‘Hey, we got to make them take tough shots and keep them off the free-throw line,’ ” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “And the team was really good at refocusing. It also helped when we were scoring. Then we can get into our 1-3-1 defense, which is a little tougher for them to attack the rim. Part of the reason we run that, it also keeps us out a little bit of foul situations because you don’t get as many one-on-one matchups.”

With the Bears playing cleaner and more disciplined on defense, the referees eventually calmed down, and Cal started going back to doing the things that made the team successful in the first half.

Although Gray finished with the nice stat line, everybody around her did well to keep the offense flowing with ball movement to shake up the Shockers’ zone defense and get high-percentage opportunities.

“She got three different looks,” Wichita State head coach Jody Adams said of Gray. “She’s a pro. She’s just tough to handle. Then you got to give their role players credit. Their role players made their shots.”

After that brief run by Wichita State, Cal played nearly perfect basketball. The Bears ran their offense and did not necessarily have to rely on just Gray, as Jefflo, Boyd, Mikayla Cowling and Gabby Green all finished with double-digit figures. Cal immediately followed a 9-0 Shockers run with a 14-4 run of its own.

“Attacking pressure was going to be key,” Gottlieb said. “You can’t know where that point of attack is going to be, and so we wanted to rely on what we’ve grown to be, which is a team with five threats on the floor.”

And as the game went on, things kept clicking for the Bears. Everybody on the floor dealt significant damage to the Shockers, and Cal found itself up by 20 with the score at 78-58 with just more than a minute left. What used to be a four-point game quickly turned into a blowout win for the Bears, now moving on to the second round against No. 5 Texas.

Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].