Forced to play small-ball, Cal’s swarming pressure and dominant
rebounding flustered the Utes and the Bears closed the game on a 30-13 run to
earn the victory.
“I’m really proud of our players for finding a way to win
this game,” said California head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I can’t tell you
enough about how bought in they are to California basketball and to each other
and to the coaching staff.”
Playing without star forward Gennifer Brandon, out with an
ankle injury, the Bears weathered foul trouble and match-up problems to improve
to 17-2. Cal (7-1) remains atop the Pac-12.†
Layshia Clarendon led the way with a game-high 23 points, and Reshanda
Gray made good on her starting opportunity with 19.† Brittany Boyd had 10.†
“Obviously, we always want all of our players healthy and on
the court, but this team is built to say, ‘OK, one All-American is out, we have
other people who can step up,’” said Gottlieb. “Layshia knocked down critical
shots. It’s almost a quiet 11 for 15. Reshanda was huge. But I think it was
everyone else in the roles around them. Eliza was tremendous; Mikayla Lyles was
terrific. Boyd, while she had a rough shooting night, made a lot of good
decisions and got us going.”
Cal forced 21 turnovers.†
Utah was also short-handed, as All-Pac-12 post Taryn
Wicijowski suffered a knee injury in the previous game. It forced Utah head
coach Anthony Levrets to make changes in both his line-up and strategy.
“They have very good bigs, and we didn’t feel that our freshman
who normally plays the two was going to be able to handle one of them,” said
Levrets. “So we decided to go triangle-and-two. It allowed one of our seniors
who is a smart defender but not a quick defender to be in the funnel in the
middle of the floor to double team the post and help on penetration. But we
were matched to Clarendon, and Clarendon ended up going 11 for 15! She’s so
good. But we thought it gave us the best chance to be in the game.”
“They essentially played without a five player,” said
Gottlieb. “It was a great adjustment by him, to say, ‘Let’s change the game a
little bit.’ I credit them coming in, not losing a beat, without a kid who is a
really good player.”
Utah started the game hitting three of its four attempts.
The Bears had more opportunities but were not as accurate, but two treys from
Afure Jemerigbe tied the game at eight.
Cal’s aggressiveness began to pay off, as Talia Caldwell and Reshanda Gray
scored on putbacks to spark the Bears. On defense, Cal’s press and double teams
turned Utah over, and Mikayla Lyles’s three at 8:36 earned Cal a 23-13 lead.†
Utah crept back behind Michelle Plouffe, who drove past Cal
defenders for scores inside. Layshia Clarendon responded with nine points of her own, and her three pointer gave Cal a 32-23 lead. It also marked Clarendon's 1501st point as a Cal Bear.†
Crozon completed her perfect shooting half, hitting two free throws and her
third three of the game on Utah’s final possession, and the Utes pulled within 32-28 at the break.
A three by Rachel Messer on the first possession of the second half pulled Utah
within 32-31. Michelle Plouffe was a match-up nightmare for Cal, and she
continued to attack the basket. Plouffe would finsish with a team-high 19 points. Her two free-throws gave the Utes their first
lead since the 15-minute mark of the first half.
Rodrigues broke down Cal’s defense for two buckets, and Utah
had the 37-34 lead† and the momentum.
Utah’s defense continued to give Cal trouble, but a huge
Pierre three calmed nerves and tied the game at 39. With 13:43 to go, and the
score tied at 41, Talia Caldwell picked up her fourth foul and joined Justine
Hartman on the bench.
Reshanda Gray became the only post player, as Cal went with
a four-guard line-up. But given more room to operate inside, Gray overwhelmed
her defenders, taking on double teams and picking up fouls. She scored six
quick points to edge Cal ahead 47-43.
“Reshanda did a terrific job of ducking in and getting post-ups
late in the possession,” said Gottlieb. “Our players were really patient about
when can I get an open jumper and when I can get it into Gray. Gray brings a
different element than Gen. They’re both great on the boards. Gen likes to play
in space, whereas Reshanda really is a low-post duck-in kid. So it was very
valuable for us tonight.”†
Inspired by Gray, the Bears crashed the offensive glass,
earning multiple opportunities on every possession. Pierre seemed to come down
with every other loose rebound.
“I think we’ve been working on box-outs,” said Pierre. “Gray
did a great job boxing out, and I just went to get the ball.† Almost every rebound, I told Gray, ‘Hey go
rebound, Gray!’ because she was doing most of the work. It just kept falling
into my hands. I think the team was just on a hype. We wanted every loose ball.
We were fighting for our season. When we have to face adversity, someone always
steps us, and it’s not the same person every night. It’s great that we have
that on this team. You don’t have that on every team. And tonight, I guess it
was me on rebounds.”
But the story of the game was Cal’s defense in the final 11
minutes of the game. Made baskets gave Cal a chance to press, and the Bears
executed to perfection, forcing one turnover after another and knocking down
quick scores. Over a span of four minutes, the Utes committed six turnovers in
seven possessions, and Cal turned those miscues into points.
“The four-guard line-up, with Eliza playing the four-spot at
the top of the press, that was the shift in the game,” said Gottlieb. “We upped
the pressure, got a bunch of steals, and made plays the way we’d like to.”
“We had a great pressing team in,” said Pierre. “It was hard
to get past our front line.”
The pressure sapped whatever energy and fight that was left
in an already-overworked Utah team. Cal led 58-45 with eight minutes to go, but the game was essentially over.
“Normally, we are one of the top teams in the country in
assist-to-turnover ratio,” said Levrets. “They are a very talented and athletic
basketball team. But we were tired. We played too many minutes, and when you
are tired like that, sometimes that can overwhelm you, and it did tonight. That
was the critical point in that game.”
Cal’s press was especially impressive, considering that it
worked with players not used to playing together in that specific line-up.
Gottlieb explained that it was Pierre who made it work, taking over Brandon’s
spot at the top of the press.
“When we knew Gen was going to be out—and we didn’t know until
this morning—I thought about, if we get in foul trouble, we needed to have a
guard able to play the four-spot,” said Gottlieb. “We had two players run it
for about five minutes in practice. Mik [Lyles] is so smart, she knew it, and
we also had Afure to play four offensively. We didn’t think about it
defensively, because Utah runs things that we can guard. I didn’t think about
the press. Then we had the small group in when we wanted to press. And while
Mik had been running Gen’s spot offensively, I said, ‘Let’s go Silver,’ and
Eliza said, ‘I can play the top.’ Literally, it was like that. Gen has six
inches on her, but Eliza is the other person who is as disruptive as Gen, and
as soon as she said it, I said, ‘That’s genius. She can play the top.’ And it was
great. We don’t win championships without Eliza Pierre. She just did everything
to give us a lift.”
“I try to do whatever my team needs me to do,” said Pierre.
“Just try to be a leader on the floor. I think my team really responds to that.
And they help me. If I’m down on myself from a poor shooting night or my leg
hurts or my knee hurts, they’re always, ‘Come on, you can push through this.’
And that really helps.”
∑† † † † † ††Gottlieb: “I said to [the players] at the half,
‘I’m getting out coached, we weren’t ready for the triangle and two, and I’ll
take that. But you all need to do what you do well.† We need to have a little bit more confidence,
we need to play Cal basketball, we need to push the tempo.”
†Levrets: “They won by 17; I don’t know how
she could feel that she was out-coached.”
∑ † ††††††
Cal took 64 shots to Utah’s 36.† The Bears outscored the Utes 30 to five on
points off turnovers and 23 to zero on second chance points.
∑† † † † † †The Bears had the 35 rebounds to Utah’s 20; Cal
had 20 boards on the offensive glass alone.
† † Clarendon is the 10th Bear to score over 1500 points. Her 1515 leaves her 15 points behind Trisha Stafford for ninth place all time.†
1.† † † ††Brandon--“She’s day-to-day. She rolled her ankle
at the end of the Colorado game. She got up and played through it, and that
aggravated it a little bit. But we just wanted to be cautious. But hopefully
she’ll be good in the next couple of days.”
2.† † † †Gray tweaked her hamstring.
3.† † † †Wicijowski hurt the same knee of her previous
ACL tear and will wait to see results of an MRI next week. Levrets took the
opportunity to give a shout-out to the Cal medical staff: “First of all, your
training staff here has been so courteous and kind to us and helpful in getting
her an X-ray and taking care of her. They’ve been wonderful to her, and it’s
been much appreciated.”