Morsels in the stew: Cal women’s basketball’s season in review

Vanessa Lim/Staff

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“The Shot” refers to Michael Jordan’s buzzer-beating jump shot in game five of the first round of the 1989 playoffs. Driving to his left, Jordan suddenly levitated for half of a second, lifting himself just high enough to get a shot off from the free-throw line.

It is indubitably one of the most mesmerizing buzzer-beaters of all time. The grace, the poise, the balance, the skill of perhaps the greatest basketball player of all time — all captured in three heart-pounding seconds.

Beautiful moments like “The Shot” remind us that basketball fans don’t tune in to watch the ugly parts of the game: the many missed shots, embarrassing turnovers and misdirected passes that fly into the fourth row of seats.

By that logic, there was very little reason to watch Cal women’s basketball this season.

Cal finished the year with an overall record of 12-19 and an even more pitiful conference record of 3-15. The last time Cal finished with 19 or more losses was in 2002, making this the Bears’ worst season in 17 years.

Sometimes a record lies. Poor refereeing, lucky game-winners and a whole slew of other factors can make a team look much better than it is. Cal’s record, however, tells the truth. The Bears finished dead last in the conference in both points per game allowed, 71.4, and field goal percentage, 39.0%, not to mention in the bottom five in a whole slew of other major team statistics.

The first nine games were their best. Cal started 7-2, including a win over No. 20 Arkansas and a surprisingly close 11-point loss to women’s basketball powerhouse and then-No. 5 UConn. Most importantly, the Bears were scoring the basketball, averaging 77.4 points per game over the course of a seven-game winning streak that spanned nearly a month from November through December.

Then, the wheels fell off.

After a close loss to then No. 14 Kentucky in Berkeley that broke Cal’s seven-game winning streak, the blue and gold were never the same. A 19-point crushing of GCU was their last taste of victory for quite some time, as the Bears went winless in their first nine conference games.

Road games at then-No. 5 Stanford, No. 8 Oregon State and No. 6 Oregon in quick succession right in the middle of Cal’s grueling Pac-12 schedule was an avalanche from which the Bears barely made it out alive. In those three games, Cal averaged 46.3 points per game and lost by an average margin of 40 points.

A particularly disheartening loss came a few weeks later against a poor Washington State team in Pullman. The Cougars, who finished second to last in the conference standings, picked the Bears apart to secure a rare victory, 92-66. Cal allowed 19 turnovers, and WSU forward Borislava Hristova dominated the blue and gold to the tune of 32 points.

Their next game against Washington looked like it would be the final nail in the coffin for the Bears’ season. But when all hope seemed lost, Cal shocked everyone with a gritty 81-74 overtime win in Seattle, their first Pac-12 win of the year after nine straight losses.

Their biggest victory had yet to come, as, on March 1, they pulled off an upset over then-No. 13 Arizona on the road, their best win in conference play.

Already doomed to a No. 12 seed in the Pac-12 tournament, the win over Arizona was nevertheless vital in boosting the confidence of a frustrated team.

And that positivity was needed. The Bears defied the odds again with a massive first-round victory over No. 5 seed Arizona State, a team they had just lost to by 23 less than a week before. Cal became just the second No. 12 seed in Pac-12 tournament history to win a tournament game, shocking the blue and gold faithful and the basketball world as a whole.

But then it was back to their old ways. Against Arizona, the Bears went just 3-12 from the field in the second quarter and finished with a 37.7% field goal percentage. The Wildcats got their offense going and won when it counted, putting up 86 points in a 73-86 second-round victory.

All in all, Cal women’s basketball was bland and subpar this year. There was no moment like “The Shot” to keep Bears fans hungry for more. But there were, sometimes, great moments and performances — morsels in the stew — that Cal fans may too easily forget if they focus on what’s for dessert.

What about freshman guard Jazlen Green’s career-high 18 points against WSU? Or CJ West leading the Bears to victory over UW with a season-high 22 points shortly after returning from injury? Or freshman guard Cailyn Crocker’s step-back three in the final minutes of the Arizona State upset? Or when the players group-hugged coach Smith during the post-game interview?

If this season taught Cal fans anything, it is that wins, clutch shots and banners are within reaching distance. They are just going to have to wait a little while longer and watch.

William Cooke covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].