BERKELEY - It’s starting to feel a little like last season for the No. 22 Cal women’s basketball team.
The Bears won their fourth in a row Sunday afternoon and made a definitive statement in the process, thoroughly handling No. 15 Arizona State in a 74-63 victory at Haas Pavilion. The win moves Cal (18-7, 10-4 Pac-12) into sole possession of second place in the conference standings and gives the Bears a wealth of confidence and momentum heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
The Bears haven’t been as consistent since November like last season’s Final Four team. But like last season, they look like they are going to be a tough out for the rest of February and into March.
“I thought we had a chance to improve over the course of the season,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. “I thought we had an opportunity to keep getting better. I think the difference more than anything is a confidence and embracing our own identity. We have multiple weapons.”
Perhaps Cal’s most indispensable weapon – junior point guard Brittany Boyd – showed little effects of an ankle injury she suffered Friday night that sidelined her for the final 14:29 of the Bears’ victory over Arizona. She started and played 38 minutes, registering 21 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals.
“She’s just the toughest athlete certainly I’ve ever coached,” Gottlieb said. “You can’t really know kids’ pain tolerance. Everyone is a little different. I do know that if there was a chance she can go, she’s going to go. You can’t find an NFL player, WNBA, NBA player tougher than she is.”
Senior guard Afure Jemerigbe scored a career-high 23 points for the Bears, including 15 in the first half as Boyd got her bearings. Boyd scored 19 of her 21 in the second half.
“I just had to relax,” Boyd said. “In the first half, I was forcing a lot. In the second half, I just had to do what I do best, get my teammates involved. I think I needed to see a layup fall or something. I needed to see the ball go in the basket. That really helped me.”
The inside tandem of Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray helped the Bears win the battle in the paint. Both had double-doubles – Brandon finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds while Gray had 11 points and 12 boards. The duo also did the job defensively inside, helping Cal hold the Sun Devils to 37 percent floor shooting for the game.
Brandon’s play down the stretch was especially pivotal, as she swallowed up every defensive rebound off ASU misses. The fifth-year senior is surging toward the finish – Sunday marked her third double-double in the past four games.
“The last several weeks, Gen’s trajectory has been in an upward direction,” Gottlieb said. “She’s feeling strong again. There aren’t too many teams in the country with a player coming on this late in the game, so that’s a real factor for us.”
The Bears led 32-30 at the half but went on an 11-0 run to begin the second half to lead 43-30 with 15:59 left. Boyd scored seven points during the run. A few minutes later, she hung in the air on a drive long enough to cross under the basket and lay it in with her left hand, giving Cal its largest lead at 49-34 with 13:44 to go.
“She came out on fire (in the second half),” Jemerigbe said. “She made everybody work. You have to guard her. When she goes, she goes. Definitely Boyd kicking it into gear was a key. Everyone fed off that.”
The Sun Devils cut Cal’s advantage to 63-58 with 2:47 to go, but a putback by Gray and jumper by Jemerigbe got the lead back to 67-58 with 1:40 remaining. With Brandon controlling the boards, the Bears closed it out.
The Bears now have four Pac-12 games left. They travel to Southern California to take on the L.A. schools next weekend.
“The next thing for us is to get ready for L.A.,” Boyd said. “That’s what we’re really focused on. It’s just a progression. We’re not looking any further than that, and we’re not looking back. We’re focused on what’s ahead.”