Even without stalwart Gennifer Brandon, the Cal women’s basketball team reminded everybody that its bench was more than capable of handling the job.
The No. 7 Bears (17-2, 7-1) sealed their fifth consecutive victory, 71-54, on Sunday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.
Reshanda Gray replaced Brandon, who started all 18 games before rolling her ankle in Friday’s victory, and played more than well in her stead, notching 19 points and eight rebounds.
“This team is built so that if we have one All-American out,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said, “we have other people that can step up.”
Early on, though, no one on the Bears looked to fill that role. Cal came out slowly, with Utah (10-9, 1-7) controlling the scoreboard for much of the first five minutes. Cal evidently missed Brandon, as its usual dominance on the boards started stale.
The Bears then turned on its defensive jets at the 15:00 mark, shutting out Utah for five consecutive possessions with four turnovers. Their efforts paid off, as they scored four times in that stretch to gain a 14-10.
Despite the Bears’ tenacity, Utah kept the game close with its own impressive guard, Paige Crozon. The freshman shot a perfect 4-4 from the field in the first half, including three 3-point field goals.
Cal’s aggressive bench, though, managed to propel the Bears to 32-23 lead with only a minute left. Crozon, however, earned two free throws and nailed a last-second three to cut the Bears’ lead to 32-28 going into the half.
The Utes continued their momentum into the second half, as they rattled off seven quick points to take a 37-34 lead only a few minutes in. As the two teams traded shots to a 41-41 tie at 13:16, Cal’s bench players brought the team back in again.
Eliza Pierre was especially huge, nailing a jumper from beyond the arc and turning back around to force a Utes turnover. Up to that point, Utah’s bench scored nothing compared to Cal’s eight.
“You do not win championships without someone like Eliza Pierre,” Gottlieb said. “She just did everything to get us a lift with rebounds, four assists, knocking down a huge three.”
The bench’s combined ferocity inspired Cal’s defense to literally shut down the Utes offense. At 11:56, with the score tied 43-43, the Bears used their suffocating press defense to regain a dominant lead.
Over the next four minutes, the Utes only managed to cross the ball past half court twice while Cal forced four steals and five turnovers en route to a 58-45 lead.
The Bears’ aggressive tone on defense and rebounding remained that way for the rest of the game. For the game, Cal beat Utah 23-0 on second-chance points and 30-5 on points off turnovers.
It took the Utes 38 minutes to even have a bench player score. By then, the Utes had no chance, and the Bears finished the afternoon with a 71-54 victory.
“I’m proud of our players for finding a way to win this game,” Gottlieb said. “I just can’t say enough about how bought in they are to California basketball.”