Public service announcement for those who are still stuck on the other side of leap day: It’s March. With March comes madness, and it was pure madness in Las Vegas on Thursday as Cal women’s basketball knocked off No. 24 Arizona State in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
The game was punctuated by a 20-0 run by the Bears that spanned the third and fourth quarters after Cal fell behind by 15 points early on. In crunch time, the blue and gold fended off a late surge by the Sun Devils to secure a 71-67 victory, just the second-ever win by a 12 seed in the Pac-12 tournament.
“We’re a group of fighters, we never quit,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith. “I’m so proud of our fight and our senior group … we wanted this for our seniors.”
The first quarter started with typical postseason jitters. The Bears seemed tentative on offense, trying to force the issue and failing to generate any ball movement. Possessions featured just one or two passes followed by an isolation attempt, and early turnovers stifled any chance the blue and gold had to get into a rhythm.
On the other end, Cal brought energy early, but Arizona State adjusted quickly and the Bears’ defense started to break down.
A pair of backdoor cuts for layups by Reili Richardson and a series of second-chance points from failed box outs boosted the Sun Devils to a six-point lead after one period.
The same trends carried into the next period. Cal still looked nervous on offense, failing to find any points for the first five minutes of the quarter. Meanwhile, Arizona State continued to capitalize on its opponent’s miscues, nailing open threes, pull-up jumpers and putbacks. A 13-2 run from the Sun Devils pulled the teams apart, putting the Bears in a 15-point hole.
Back and forth it went from there. Cal scored seven quick points before halftime, but Arizona State responded to extend its lead to a dozen early in the third. Never deterred, Cal freshman Cailyn Crocker put up seven in a row to cut the lead to five, but the Sun Devils answered again to go up 11.
And that’s when the switch was flipped.
With two minutes left in the third, the Bears made their run — and it was a run for the ages. In just three minutes of game time, Cal went on a 20-0 streak, scoring on almost every possession over that span. With every basket, the Bears looked more and more confident, and senior Jaelyn Brown put on a vintage performance reminiscent of her games against Arizona and Arkansas earlier this season.
The difference for Cal was their move to a full-court zone press late in the third. With center CJ West facing a mild knee injury, Charmin Smith went small and let her trio of quick freshman guards — Leilani McIntosh, Jazlen Green and Crocker — pressure and trap the Sun Devils.
“If we want to win this game, we have to take it from them,” Smith said during the game. “We have to be the tougher team.”
And they were tough.
In that three-minute span, Arizona State didn’t even get a clean look at the basket — their nine possessions featured five straight turnovers, followed by two blocks and then two more turnovers. By the time the Sun Devils looked back up at the scoreboard, an 11-point lead had become a nine-point deficit.
Nevertheless, the Sun Devils made their run. A 7-0 run later on cut the Cal lead to one, highlighted by a crucial intentional foul call on Crocker for extending her elbow in a loose ball situation.
With the game and the season hanging in the balance, Brown — Cal’s star and seasoned veteran — made the play of the day by stepping in to draw a charge that kept the lead for the Bears. It was a gutsy play by the senior, who had four fouls and just barely got her feet out of the restricted area.
With 30 seconds left, Cal led by two, and after a few close calls on open three-pointers, the Bears sealed the game at the free-throw line.
And with that, the dancing began.
It started with a shimmy by Charmin Smith after West hit two clutch free throws, and continued in full force after the final buzzer with Crocker and Green dancing on the set of the postgame show.
“It’s just a really cool feeling as a coach when you get to see your players jumping up and down and dancing,” Smith said.
And just as Smith was happy for her players, the players credited their success to their coach.
“It starts with Charmin,” Brown said. “She believes in us, she wants us to buy in, and we do that every day.”
Over the past week, the results of that buy-in have finally shown. Cal went to Tucson last week and upset the No. 13 team in the nation, and followed it up with another top-25 win.
Up next is the No. 4 seed Arizona on Friday. Cal’s win over the Wildcats started this improbable ride, but Arizona will have a chance at redemption to end the Cinderella story. Nevertheless, the Bears will see another day this season, and will enter tomorrow with full confidence and nothing to lose.
“The Arizona game — it just gave us momentum and we’re just unstoppable right now,” Brown said.