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Cal Women's Basketball Overcomes USC, Refs, for Senior Day Win
Jayda Curry scores 27 to power Cal to an overtime win over the Trojans
Sports are a cruel, zero-sum game. In most walks of life, we don’t demand a winner and a loser, and you don’t have a record attached to your career. And because every player has that win/loss record appended to their playing career, it tends to obscure everything else that they do.
Leilani McIntosh and Evelien Lutje Schipholt arrived as true freshman in 2019-20, as part of Charmin Smith’s first recruiting class as Cal head coach. Their entire Cal careers have been filled with nothing but challenges. They have been the only constants on a team defined by instability. As the roster around them changed year-by-year, game-by-game, with everybody around them coming and going with injuries and COVID and transfers, they somehow persevered, kept grinding, kept pushing. There were times with both players had to play nearly 40 minutes due to lack of healthy bodies, and times when games were cancelled because it felt like they were the only two players physically able to go. With the attitude they both brought to the floor, it wouldn’t surprise me if they spent time trying to convince Charmin Smith to let them play 4 on 5.
For four years, their efforts went unrewarded in the standings. Entering Sunday’s game against USC, Cal was 9-49 in Pac-12 play since McIntosh and Schipholt (and Charmin Smith) arrived.
Earlier this year, when Cal narrowly lost at home to Stanford, the pair looked near tears at the end of the game. But this time, when the game finally ended with Cal ahead, it was scenes of intense celebration:
Even in a season that, according to the standings, was lost long ago, there is joy to be found, and just rewards for years of blood, sweat, and tears.
Cal won this game in part by playing one of their better offensive games against maybe the best defense in the Pac-12. Curry was the offensive dynamo, finding more success driving to the basket than has often been the case this year to pair with typically good outside shooting. The Bears moved the ball quickly and with purpose, and created open shots for themselves much more often than USC would typically allow.
But I suspect it would have been another unrewarded effort if Cal hadn’t done something else, something that the Bears haven’t done in Pac-12 play: rebound.
Both teams finished the game with 17 offensive rebounds and 25 defensive rebounds. That may not seem like much, but Cal has typically been outrebounded against Pac-12 opposition, occasionally badly. But with a slight shot-volume advantage, Cal was able to play basket for basket with USC before finally holding onto a narrow lead on the final defensive possession of OT.
It was a total team effort - Michelle Onyiah grabbed nine boards to tie “team” rebounds (i.e. contested rebounds that get knocked out of bounds) for most on the day. Charmin Smith talked about how boxing out had been a recent point of emphasis in practice that she didn’t see against UCLA, but the Bears needed every rebound they pulled down to survive USC.
I try not to dwell on college basketball reffing. I understand that basketball is a dynamic game with 10 players constantly bumping into each other, and that you could justify calling a foul on almost any possession. I understand that the NCAA isn’t going to pay enough for full-time refs, which is probably the only way to improve things. I have grown used to the odd quirks of WBB officiating in particular, where refs love to call travels and illegal screens and signal for a jump ball at the slightest hint that two players have hands on the ball.
But if Cal had lost this game in overtime, I’d have to reconsider following this sport.
The situation: Game tied, Cal ball, just a few seconds left. Cal inbounds to Jayda Curry, who works one-on-one against her defender to create a shot. She releases her shot (a 3 pointer), and the USC defender clearly goes through Curry’s arms in an attempt to contest the shot. It’s a foul! And a ref CALLS the foul! Cal will get three free throws and surely win! If you pause the replay at the moment that Curry releases and ball, AND the moment that the USC defender makes contact, this is what you will see:
The refs immediately went to the scorer’s table to review the play, and stupid naïve me assumed that they were working to determine how much time to put on the clock before sending Curry to the line. Instead, they waive off the foul, telling everybody that after video review, they determined that the illegal contact that occurred happened after time ran out.
This explanation is at direct odds with . . . well, physical reality. I can’t even begin to guess how something like this could happen. Did the refs regret making a call that would decide the game and reverse-engineered the best excuse they could come up with to justify sending the game to OT? Was their video review somehow busted? I still can’t even begin to understand.
In the countless number of college basketball games I’ve watched it’s the single worst, least understandable officiating decision I’ve ever seen. If this happened on a national broadcast in an important game it would have been a minor scandal. Instead, it happened on the Pac-12 network and the aggrieved team won anyway, so the Pac-12 will happily let it slide under the radar.
The narrative undercurrent of this game was another match-up between Cal and former Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. This time around, Cal honored the 10th anniversary of Cal’s Final Four Team, and it was heart-warming seeing so much of that squad in attendance:
Meanwhile, Cal honored McIntosh, Lutje Schipholt, Peanut Tuitele, and Sela Heide. Tuitele is out of eligibility, but Cal’s other three senior day honorees have eligibility remaining despite being set to graduate. McIntosh, for one, indicated on Instagram that she plans on returning next year. In short, we don’t have any particular clue which players will or won’t be around for the 2023-24 season.
But either way, regardless of how this year or their Cal careers end, they’ll have this game, a 45 minute thriller that had 18 lead changes and 23 ties, as a joyful memory.