No. 21 Cal women’s basketball gives away big lead against Utah to lose, 84-79

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Coming into Sunday’s game off a 29-point win Friday, the No. 21 Cal women’s basketball team seemed to have reason to be confident as it sought its sixth consecutive victory at Haas Pavilion.

But against Utah (11-4, 3-1), the Bears’ (10-5, 1-3 Pac-12) confidence may have led to their fall, as a sloppy second half led to a squandered 19-point lead and a crushing 84-79 loss.

Cal started the game on a big run and looked like it was trying to push Utah out of contention early to secure what would be the Bears’ second consecutive blowout victory after the 64-35 win against Colorado. Cal’s 10-1 start was fueled by six points from freshman forward Kristine Anigwe, including a nice layup just 13 seconds into the game and a defensive effort that forced the Utes to miss four of their first five shots from the field.

Utah, however, quickly turned things around, going on a 19-7 run to end the quarter, led by six points from their own star forward, Emily Potter, who ended the game with 20 points and nine rebounds. The Utes’ defense also slowed down Anigwe, not allowing her to score for the rest of the period. Anigwe would come back to provide her usual stellar performance by the time the final buzzer sounded, however, with her fourth consecutive double-double on 23 points and 11 rebounds.

Despite the impressive outings from the two bigs, the game was decided from beyond the arc and by each teams’ ability to secure turnovers. Cal dominated on both fronts from the opening tip, shooting 63.6 percent on threes with only four giveaways going into halftime, at which point the Bears led, 49-31. Their guards Gabby Green and Asha Thomas played especially crucial roles, combining for only two turnovers and shooting 3-5 on their threes in the first half.

Cal’s initial superiority extended to the defensive end as well, where it forced nine turnovers and held Utah — which shot almost 45 percent from beyond the arc in Pac-12 games before its matchup with the Bears — to 3-9 on its treys going into the third quarter.

The Utes came out of the break inspired to change their perimeter shooting fortunes, with threes making up half of their first six field goal attempts in the second half. Success from beyond the arc was vital if Utah hoped to come back from a deficit that stretched to as much as 19 points, and the Utes managed to convert a much-improved five of their 11 threes in the second half. By the end of the game, Utah had pushed its three-point shooting percentage to 40, and its success at converting these shots was a key to its eventual big comeback.

Cal’s nightmare of a second half, in which the Bears were outscored, 53-30, was in large part due to an unfortunate rediscovery of the turnover bug. Cal had nine giveaways in the second half, resulting in 13 turnovers that led to 19 Utah points in the game.

Along with an inability to hold onto the ball, the Bears’ late-game efforts were hindered by their struggles to score as the Pac-12 matchup came to a close. Cal made only one of its last seven shots, and that one bucket came on a three by Green that served only to make the score more respectable.

The Bears’ loss after holding such a big lead may prove devastating in terms of the team’s standing in a Pac-12 race that figures to be one of the closest ones in recent memory.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian