Farewell Cinderella: Arizona ends Cal’s Pac-12 Tournament run

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It was almost the plot of a cheesy ’90s sports movie. Take a first-year coach, a ragtag group of misfits, a storied program and an improbable tournament run, and bam — you’ve got yourself straight-to-DVD gold. But unlike its film counterparts, the Cal women’s basketball story came to a premature end as the Bears came crashing down to reality, losing to Arizona 86-73 off the back of a career day from Cate Reese.

The Wildcats pounced on the Bears from the get-go, suffocating Cal in a full-court press while dominating in the low post. Arizona got off to a 9-0 run that included 5 points off of turnovers as the blue and gold struggled to facilitate the ball and find the bottom of the net. The early game plan for the Bears was to get the ball to senior CJ West in the paint, but the 6’4” forward failed to capitalize on her positioning close to the rim, going 0-3 from the field in the first quarter.

With her team reeling, Cal star and veteran leader Jaelyn Brown entered the fray. Determined to keep her final season going, Brown exploded for 10 points in the opening period, including a deep NBA 3 to beat the shot clock that would make Steph Curry jealous. Cal cut the lead to 2 with 3:37 left to play in the first quarter, and it appeared that the blue and gold were ready to write another chapter in their Cinderella story.

Arizona, however, had its own tale to tell. Seeking revenge for their Senior Day loss, the 4th-seed Wildcats clawed their way through the paint, swiped the ball away and hounded the Bears up and down the court en route to an 18-9 second quarter that put the Copper State squad up by 14 at the break.

The key to Arizona’s success was its ability to feast on the Bears’ interior defense. Cal forwards West and Chen Yue couldn’t keep up with the fast-paced Wildcats, as they allowed a staggering 26 points inside the paint in the first half. Offense came easy for Arizona, but on the other side of the court, the blue and gold couldn’t buy a bucket.

After an early layup from Leilani McIntosh in the second quarter, the Bears went on a six-minute field goal drought, scoring only once on a pair of free throws while turning the ball over three times during that stretch. Cal, playing its first back-to-back game of the season, clearly lacked the energy and spirit that drove its upset victory last Sunday.

Arizona, on the other hand, brought its A-game from top to bottom. Five players scored 5 or more points in the first period of play, led by Reese, who paced her team with 12 points on 6-7 shooting. Defensively, the effort was just as evenly distributed, as five Wildcats nabbed a steal, with Amari Carter leading the way with three takeaways of her own.

“We’ve let the others get going on us,” said Cal head coach Charmin Smith in a halftime interview. “We were not following the game plan when it comes to guarding Reese and Carter. We are not comfortable in that area.”

Smith’s halftime adjustments failed to come to fruition, however, as Reese continued to demonstrate why she is All-Pac-12. The 6’2” forward drove into the paint and fought among the trees, scoring 11 points on 4-5 shooting in the third quarter. Without West, who picked up a frustration foul earlier in the period that sent her to the bench, Cal had no one to match the size and strength of Reese. Any attempt of a comeback would have required a better defensive effort, and the Bears couldn’t lock down their opponents.

While coming back from a deficit is nothing new for the blue and gold, who went on a 20-0 scoring streak to beat Arizona State in the first round, a miraculous comeback wasn’t in the cards for Cal, primarily due to its inability to put up the points necessary to make a legitimate challenge. The Bears shot a miserable 4-14 in the third quarter and logged only one assist as Arizona played them tight, clogged the passing lanes and ultimately outscored Cal 21-17.

The blue and gold did not go easy into the good night, hitting from deep and drawing charges to keep the game from getting completely out of hand. But ultimately, the Wildcats’ offense was just too much to overcome. Reese put in another 7 points in the final quarter, and Aari McDonald poured in 7 of her own to close the book on the Bears’ Cinderella story.

For seniors Brown, West, Yue and Sara Anastasieska, this was the final time they donned the blue and gold, as they each wrapped up their Cal careers. Brown, in particular, was electric in her final night, putting up the lion’s share of points for the Bears with a team-high 25 points.

Ultimately, though, the Wildcats’ star power was just too much to overcome. McDonald put in yet another double-digit scoring performance, her 62nd straight game hitting that mark, and Reese put up a career-high 30 points to dazzle the desert crowd. Both sophomores put Arizona on their back, and as the Pac-12 tournament continues to unfold and with March Madness on the horizon, expect their names to dominate the conversation in the coming weeks.

This likely wraps up the season for Cal, as the Bears are not projected to participate in the NCAA tournament. In Smith’s first-year campaign, the blue and gold went 12-19 (3-15) and had their fair share of upsets along the way. While not quite the picturesque year many fans were hoping for after a 7-2 start that included a win over then-No. 20 Arkansas, this season was overall a solid start to Smith’s career as head coach. With a star-studded incoming freshman class, Smith and company will hope to build off of their solid foundation.

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.