New year, same story: Bears lose heartbreaker to Sun Devils

Photo of Cal Women's Basketball player dribbling
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Down by one point with eight seconds left on the clock, Cal women’s basketball had a chance to win the game. It had done almost everything right, nailing a clutch three-pointer and then coming up with a key stop against ASU’s leading scorer in the waning seconds to earn a shot at its first win of the season. The ball and the game was in the hands of veteran leader Leilani McIntosh, an Arizona native and the heartbeat of Cal’s team this season.

She grabbed the inbounds pass, drove her way to the basket and had an open look at a potential game-winning layup. She missed, giving ASU possession of the ball with two seconds to go. The Bears fouled, the Sun Devils hit two free throws and Evelien Lutje Schipholt’s last second heave fell short. The final score was 56-53; the Sun Devils escaped the upset, and the Bears came up an agonizing three points short to remain winless on the season.

The final moments of this New Year’s Day matchup were a perfect representation of Cal’s season on the whole. There were highlights and moral victories to take away, but in the end, costly mistakes and missed opportunities prevented the Bears from turning those positives into wins.

The Bears arguably shouldn’t have been in the game in the first place. The troubles started before the match even tipped off, as COVID-19 precautions delayed the tip-off time by 3 1/2 hours. To make matters worse, the Bears learned that injuries would keep freshman center Sela Heide (and the Bears’ two walk-on players, Archer Olson and Sierra Richey) out of the game.

Combine that with the three guards already out with season-ending injuries, and Cal was left with just six healthy bodies. On the road against a 6-2 ASU team that had a nine-player rotation of its own, it would be unsurprising for a 0-7 Cal team to roll over and accept defeat.

Instead, the Bears came out flying, playing suffocating defense to jump out to an 18-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. Cal held ASU to 4-14 shooting and was led in scoring by Ugonne Onyiah, who scored six early points.

The Bears built their lead in a sloppy second quarter that turned the game into a defensive battle. Cal could only put up ten points but locked ASU down, as the Sun Devils scored only eight of their own on a dreadful 3-15 shooting. The Bears took a 28-19 lead into the half and looked as though they could find a way to win if they could maintain their defensive performance.

ASU wouldn’t go away that easily, though, as the Pac-12 powerhouse adjusted during the break to put pressure on Cal in the third quarter. It was clear that the Bear’s shallow bench had caught up to them, as a deep ASU roster pounced on an exhausted Cal team and seemingly scored at will.

The Bears hung on to a narrow 41-40 lead entering the fourth, but the Sun Devils kept pushing. They opened the fourth with a dominant 10-0 run to create a 50-41 lead, while Cal still hadn’t scored with more than half of the quarter complete.

ASU held all of the momentum, and it looked as though a gassed Cal team was fading late in the game as it had so many times this season. Instead, the Bears responded with perhaps their best five minutes of the season, as the entire team stepped up with a 12-4 run of its own to give it a last chance to steal a win.

The Bears ultimately fell short, but this was by far their most inspired performance of the season, as they overcame adversity and fought to the bitter end. The standouts for the blue and gold were McIntosh and freshman star Dalayah Daniels. Daniels led the team in scoring with an efficient 20 points on 6-8 shooting.

Meanwhile, McIntosh ran the offense all night, and despite missing the potential game-winner, she was key in propelling the Bears to that point in the first place. She tied her career-high by scoring 15 points, which included three three-pointers, and she had a career-high six steals. She also played a key role in the Bears’ first-half lockdown defensive showing.

Canadian Taya Hanson led ASU, scoring a game-high 21 points, all on shots from beyond the arc. Her seven three-pointers tied a school record and helped ASU complete the fourth-quarter comeback.

“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” said Hanson. “It’s just what I’m here to do.”

The defeat is heartbreaking for a young Cal team, but still, it is a far cry from the disappointment of blowout losses to Stanford and UCLA just a few short weeks ago. While it fell to 0-8 on the season, the new year brought something Cal fans haven’t had in a while — hope. The Bears may still be searching for their first win, but their gutsy performance tonight shows that the team is quickly trending up, and if they keep growing, the victories will come eventually.

Benjamin Coleman covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].