Thriller in Tucson: Cal women’s basketball upsets No. 13 Arizona in regular-season finale

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It was just a single moment, lasting maybe one minute from the time the final buzzer sounded. But as the team celebrated, that feeling of victory seemed to erase all of the season’s struggles. Head coach Charmin Smith grinned from ear to ear as she hugged assistant coach Wendale Farrow, senior Jaelyn Brown pumped her fist in accomplishment on her way into the tunnel and everything in the world seemed right.

Entering Leap Day weekend, the Bears had just two conference victories under their belt, both of which came on the back ends of their two-game road trips. On March 1, Cal went to Tucson and made it three straight Sunday road wins, topping No. 13 Arizona in a thriller, 55-54.

It was the regular-season finale for the Bears, who have struggled through all of conference play to the tune of 2-15 coming into the finale. In its last three games against the gauntlet of top-25 foes Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona State, Cal lost by an average of 22.7 points per game. Sunday’s matchup with No. 13 Arizona didn’t look any easier, especially after the Wildcats knocked off No. 4 Stanford on Feb. 28.

But the Bears saved their best for last. They jumped out to an early lead Sunday, and though the Wildcats came back to take the lead, the Bears made big plays down the stretch to keep the game within reach. In the end, a go-ahead putback by Brown with 14 seconds left was the difference, and the Bears capped off their regular season with a huge upset victory.

Cal brought energy from the get-go, hounding Arizona on defense and forcing four turnovers before the Wildcats had even scored.

Freshman Jazlen Green came off the bench and provided an offensive spark, putting up 13 of her team-high 17 points in the first half, including 3-3 from beyond the arc. Her two 3-pointers to end the first quarter were part of an 18-4 run from the Bears that helped generate a 28-14 lead with four minutes remaining in the first half.

The Wildcats, though, seemed to wake up from their post-Stanford-victory hangover at that point. They put together a 12-2 run of their own to close out the half and cut the Cal lead to just 4 points going into the locker room.

After a second quarter during which both teams traded haymakers, the third quarter was an exchange of jabs. Arizona slowly gained a 5-point lead, but Cal always had an answer, and the third quarter ended with the Wildcats holding a 1-point lead.

The final period was even more of a stalemate during which neither team had any jabs to throw, and the game never extended beyond a one-possession game in either direction.

Down to the wire it went, with Cal trailing 49-52 with 90 seconds remaining. In the final moments of the regular season, it was Brown who put the game on her shoulders.

First she drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and calmly stepped up to the line to knock down all three free throws and tie the game. After an Arizona miss, the Bears ran a set play with CJ West down-screening to free up Brown for an isolation from the top of the key. Brown didn’t settle this time, taking the ball strong to the basket and earning two more free throws.

Brown missed the second, and Aari McDonald converted on the other end to send Arizona up 1 with 25 seconds left. On offense, Smith ran a similar action as the previous play, except using Brown to back-screen for West this time. West caught the ball down low and was fouled with 16 seconds left.

West ended up missing both free throws, but Brown was there again to save the day. She cleaned up her fellow senior’s miss and converted the go-ahead putback that ultimately became the game-winning shot.

In the end, it was the Cal defense that made the difference. Cal held Arizona to just 1-16 from beyond the arc and limited Arizona star McDonald to 17 points on 4-11 from the field. The Bears employed a mix of 2-3 zone defense and a box-and-one on McDonald to confuse the Wildcats and force both turnovers and tough shots.

Up next is the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas, and Cal will enter as the No. 12 seed, facing off against No. 5 seed Arizona State at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

Tim Sun covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].