At home in Haas Pavilion in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Cal women’s basketball team needed to get through No. 5 Texas to advance to the next stage in the Albany region. But that meant having to go through 6-foot-7 Imani McGee-Stafford and 6-foot-5 Kelsey Lang.
With the huge size advantage, the Bears found themselves outmatched inside the paint and could not guard their giant opponents. With Cal being outscored 46-18 in the paint, the Longhorns muscled their way over the host team and won 73-70, ending the Bears’ season.
“I did think this would be a year for some championships or celebrating, and it turned out to be more a year of almost,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “But sometimes when you don’t get exactly what you want, you learn really important things along the way, and we wanted to see us keep going because of where we are right now, and I’m really proud of that.”
Although Texas had the noticeable advantage in size in the front court, Cal had the edge for most of the first half because of sloppy turnovers by the Longhorns. Texas turned the ball over 11 times in the first half, and the majority of them were unforced, ranging from Longhorns ball-handlers dribbling the ball off their feet and committing offensive fouls to throwing passes out of bounds.
But despite the Texas turnovers, the Bears also struggled and couldn’t capitalize on the Longhorns’ mistakes. Texas turned the ball over 11 times, but Cal committed 10 first-half turnovers of its own. It also didn’t help that the Bears shot 3 of 8 from the free-throw line and shot just 37 percent from the field. The Longhorns dominated the interior, outscoring Cal 16-6 in points in the paint in the first half.
The Bears did start the game off hitting 3 of 3 from beyond the arc but then made just one of their last eight attempts. Neither team played perfectly, and entering halftime, the score was all tied up at 27 apiece.
“It was the game plan to give up something to protect the paint,” said Texas head coach Karen Aston. “It just about backfired on us, but that definitely was the plan. To play gap defense and make sure that we were in a helping position at all times. We thought that our help was absolutely critical to winning the basketball game.”
Texas cleaned things up dramatically in the second half. As soon as the Longhorns inbounded the ball to start the half, they went on a massive 12-0 run in a span of six minutes. Until a midrange jumper came from Courtney Range at the 13:44 mark, Cal was completely shut out and allowed Texas to open up a double-digit lead.
“Credit to their post players and their game plan. They were in the paint a lot,” said Brittany Boyd. “I think what got us was the second half. Just coming out slow start. No really getting into rhythm. Giving them too many easy points.”
With the Bears down and forward Reshanda Gray in foul trouble, Boyd started to put the team on her back by doing the little things, including rebounding to trigger Cal’s fast-break opportunities, driving and kicking to create open shots and aggressively attacking Texas defenders to get to the line. Because of what Boyd was creating on the floor, the Bears woke up after the nightmarish first six minutes to start the second half.
“It’s what you want out of your senior point guard who is not going to leave this court without a fight,” Gottlieb said. “She is not going to leave this court or any court without giving it everything she has.”
Cal’s back court became the center of attention for the team against Texas’s immense front court. Every time something good was happening for the Bears, it was because Boyd was doing everything she could to carry her team.
And as the senior point guard picked up the intensity on defense, rebounding and creating offense, Mercedes Jefflo picked up the team’s scoring slack. By scoring 22 points while shooting 6 of 12 from behind the arc, the sophomore guard’s shooting, paired with Boyd’s 17 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists, kept the game close.
But whenever Cal cut the deficit, Texas had an answer. McGee-Stafford, Lang and Brooke McCarty all contributed with timely shots to maintain the Longhorns’ lead. With less than a minute left, Jefflo and Boyd each made clutch threes to cut the lead to two possessions. But Cal needed Texas to make mistakes down the stretch, and the Longhorns did not commit enough errors to give the Bears a chance to come back and keep their season alive.
Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].