If I’m watching a game that I’m going to write about, I’ll start writing the recap in my head in the middle of the game. For a period of time, I thought the storyline was going to be “Cal adds injury to insult” when it looked like Cal was going to both 1) lose badly to last place Washington and 2) lose Jayda Curry to a serious looking injury.
But then Cal figured out how to play defense, Jayda Curry came out of the locker room and immediately reentered the game, and it looked like the story was going to be about comebacks, both team and individual.
And then, Cal found a way to lose the game in regulation despite holding the ball with the game tied and only nine seconds remaining, which means we’re left with the exact same story line we’ve had for six straight Pac-12 games: Cal had every opportunity to win, and yet didn’t.
It’s easy to look at lots of individual plays as microcosms of the problems that have plagued Cal for much of the season. An offense that sometimes goes too fast, giving the ball back to UW with time left on the clock. A defense that struggles to defend without fouling, sending UW to the line in the final seconds. A team that struggles to control the defensive glass, giving up an offensive rebound that is the difference between overtime and losing in regulation.
Of course, losing narrowly is much more palatable when it comes in Eugene against NCAA-tournament-bound Oregon. Falling at home to previously 1-11 Washington, less so. Thanks to a forfeit win over Arizona State and due to having played fewer games, Cal technically stands above UW in the Pac-12 standings, but I don’t think anybody is fooled by the goofy, COVID-impacted standings.
There were bright spots for those inclined to optimism. Dalayah Daniels continued her recent strong play, notching 21 points on just 12 shots and regularly using her mobility and footwork to bamboozle UW’s interior defenders. After a disastrous first half of passive defense, the Bears came out with a full court press and much more intensity, and somehow maintained that energy for the entire second half. After allowing 39 points prior to halftime, Cal gave up just 22 after the break.
But that poor 2nd half, and an inability to hit enough shots down the stretch ultimately prevented Cal from completing the comeback. That the Bears had the drive and energy to fight all the way back from 14 down to tie the game is to their credit. That the Bears fell behind by 14 to UW in the first place is concerning.
The night and day difference between Cal’s 1st half defense and 2nd half defense was startling. At one point, the Pac-12 network ran a highlight package of UW’s 3 pointers, with Cal defenders either nowhere near or forgetting to close out shooters. The Bears looked sluggish and unfocused, and it very much showed on the scoreboard.
And then, suddenly, playing a full court press, the Bears were wildly active. Cal had players flying all over the court, swiping at the ball, disrupting passing lanes. After turning the ball over just 5 times in the first half, UW turned it over 10 times in the 2nd half.
To be fair, some of UW’s offensive struggles seemed to come from a desire to run clock more than run offense, but it’s undeniable that Cal made UW much more uncomfortable on every inch of the court, and UW’s shot quality plummeted.
It’s fair to wonder why it took falling behind to wake up Cal’s defense. Maybe it’s not realistic for a team to full court press for 40 minutes, but you don’t have to run a press to play good defense. There’s plenty of opportunities to press a ball handler and get into passing lanes in the half court set.
Fixing Cal’s defense next year is going to be more than coaxing 40 minutes of energy game-in game-out, but that’s going to be a necessary ingredient before all other factors.
There’s still one last regular season game, one last opportunity to put everything together, before the Pac-12 tournament. Cal will play a very motivated Washington State team on Saturday. A win will earn the Cougars at least a three seed in the Pac-12 tournament and bolster their NCAA tournament chances.
For Cal, it’s a chance to avenge an ugly 27 point loss the Bears suffered in a game heavily impacted by COVID absences way back in early January, and to end this frustrating streak of close losses and near misses.