Alexis Gray-Lawson's Defining Performance: "You gotta let players like that just play"

After University of Washington guard Sami Whitcomb hit a game-tying three at the end of regulation, University of California guard Alexis Gray-Lawson scored 5 of Cal's 9 points in overtime en route to a 75-68 road victory on Sunday afternoon. Please see our photo gallery via jlindstr.smugmug.com

As a young budding basketball dork, there were certain games that I determined to be so special that I had to save the ticket stub just in case I had to validate the authenticity of my account by saying, see - I was actually there.

The first such game was a double overtime game between the Golden State Warriors and Seattle Supersonics. I left the game with my dad, thinking that I might have witnessed the best Warriors game ever, although I didn't fully understand how appropriate it was to call a Seattle player "The Reign Man". The very next season, we drafted Chris Webber and I thought we finally had our answer to all the big men in the West. Suddenly, every single game I went to turned into a "ticket stub saver" - I simply could not believe that the phenom from the University of Michigan was playing for my team. I was convinced going to games with dad that year that I was witnessing the dawn of a new era in Warriors history at a time when there was no indication of the forthcoming 13 years of futility.

Even after the naïve days of adolescence, there is little better in sports than that moment when you suddenly realize that you're witnessing something special unfold. It's not just the outcome, but the entire build up that almost makes you wish the game didn't have to end. Sometimes it's a matter of appreciating a combination of well-honed skill, command of the game, and sheer force of will coming together in a dramatic situation leaving you either shaking your head or standing up to cheer. Either way, it's that feeling that made me want to dedicate a shoe box to ticket stubs as a kid.

University of California guard Alexis Gray-Lawson's 35-point performance in Cal's 75-68 road win over the University of Washington yesterday was one such performance. Kevin Pelton dropped by to watch the game and certified Gray-Lawson as "legit" in response to those that doubt her. Cal coach Joanne Boyle commented that she was just "in that mode". University of Washington coach Tia Jackson called the performance "unreal". Joe the Swish Appeal photographer said simply that it was the best UW game of the season, despite the loss.

Perhaps Gray-Lawson's performance was not historically special in the sense that neither record books were re-written nor championship trophies secured. It wasn't even necessarily the outcome or the points scored that made the game particularly special. In reflecting on the game, what's most striking is that game circumstances might have robbed us from an even gaudier performance. Even more remarkable is the fact that despite the circumstances, it was arguably the best performance of her career and definitely what could be described as a defining performance for the All-American.

It was a beautiful performance wrapped in a beautiful narrative.

First half foul trouble

She was forced to miss the final 8:41 in the first half due to foul trouble after picking up a questionable third foul.

"I couldn't get her out fast enough when she got the second one and she picked up the third one on that offensive rebound - I was actually thinking about leaving her in," said Cal coach Joanne Boyle of the foul trouble. "Obviously, when she got that over the back call that just killed us. Thank goodness there was only 7 minutes left in the half - she only had to sit 7. But that hurts to not have her on the floor."

While it hurt Cal not to have her on the floor, Washington's best defensive strategy on the afternoon was "Alexis in foul trouble", according to coach Tia Jackson. With Gray-Lawson out in the first half, Washington went on a 17-9 run.

"We talked about it in our coaches' huddle," said Washington coach Tia Jackson of what she felt when Gray-Lawson went out due to foul trouble. "I didn't really say it to the team: that was an opportunity we wanted to maximize. Yeah, did we want to have more than a five point cushion? Yeah. But that was I think one of those moments when we had a couple hiccups versus their press. They started to pick up the pressure when she went out because they had to. If we go half court with them, we're going to go to work."

Second half injury

When Gray-Lawson hopped off the court with 4:41 left in the second half with her arms wrapped around the shoulders of others after laying on the floor in visible pain for a couple of minutes, the biggest fear was of course that she had reaggravated the knee injury that had previously disrupted the fifth-year senior's career. It was something Boyle didn't even want to think about.

"I try not to because when she got hurt two years ago with her knee I try not to even go there until we know for sure," said Boyle, whose Cal team was down by one at the time of the injury. "She doesn't get hurt that often - I mean she had that knee. So when she goes down I think it scares her more than anything at times. You know when you get that first ankle sprain it's that initial pain and then it starts to wear off so I think that's what happened. It's a little swollen."

Boyle's thinking about the injury helps to understand how she used Gray-Lawson after the injury.

Prior to the injury, Gray-Lawson had 27 points on 9-15 shooting and 5 rebounds -- she was already putting together adding another 30+ game to her outstanding senior season. Nevertheless, after making a belabored jog to the scorers table to check back in and clearly limping back into the game, she hardly skipped a beat offensively.

However, the most impressive thing is that when it became clear that she didn't quite have her legs under her after nearly airballing her first shot back with about two minutes left, she refocused and just worked harder.

With just over a minute left in the game, she set up a missed three for a teammate, grabbed the offensive rebound to restart the offense. Upon getting the ball back on the wing, she lulled her defender to sleep with a few back and forth dribbles before taking a step back pull-up shot from the three point line to put her team up 62-58.

She continued the hard work as the three minute mark approached in overtime, getting another offensive rebound off a missed three point attempt that she set up, going up strong, getting a second offensive rebound, and finally drawing a foul on 6'4" center Laura McLellan. Although she missed the two ensuing free throws, it was clear she was intent on doing whatever it took to get the win, whether it be setting up teammates, grabbing offensive rebounds, or hitting contested three pointers.

"Lexi's been a big time player and she shows up when we need her in big games," said Boyle. "And tonight was one of those nights where we had to have points and we weren't getting them in other ways. And she really starts to read that as the game goes on and knows when she needs to just kinda take over games."

The fact that Boyle immediately called plays for her was a little surprising - making no attempt to mask her intentions, Gray-Lawson was the first option when she first returned to the game and eventually the lead ball-handler. Gray-Lawson delivered despite the pain of the ankle sprain and scored 5 of Cal's 9 points in overtime, a three and two free throws. And forget the scoring - the 5'8" Gray-Lawson had three offensive rebounds on a bad ankle. However, although we as observers might have been surprised, Boyle knew what to expect from her All-American player.

"I think when she's in that mode...she's starting to feel that balance too of when they need me," said Boyle. "She knows she has to get to the line for us - she's a good free throw shooter. She missed two tonight, but she's typically a good free throw shooter. When her jumper's on, it's on. So you gotta let players like that just play."

However, Gray-Lawson's injury is also partially responsible for a defensive lapse that led to Washington guard Sami Whitcomb sending the game into overtime.

A defensive lapse

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Washington guard Kristi Kingma (left) celebrates after setting up guard Sami Whitcomb for a game-tying three.
Photo via jlindstr.smugmug.com

Down by three with six seconds left, Washington brought the ball upcourt after two Natasha Vital free throws with an opportunity to tie the game.

"We dribbled it up and we were trying to run a different play but at that point there wasn't enough time to set up the play," said Whitcomb. "So when I saw Kristi get it over there and everyone left, like there was nobody guarding me. So I just ran over into the corner and was hoping that she would see me and she did. It just kinda worked out."

The reason there was nobody guarding Whitcomb was that Gray-Lawson was the one who was supposed to rotate over.

"Clearly it was hard for me to move laterally, so I was trying to chase her as fast as I possibly could, and she made a good shot," said Gray-Lawson of the play. "You have to respect that - she's a good shooter and I kinda knew she was going to make it anyway. So I was just trying to just trying to stay focused and come back on the court and just make shots."

Of course she did that and Boyle echoed the same Jay-Zesque sentiment: on to the next one.

"We were just like, ‘next thing'," said Boyle. "Onto the next thing and we'll figure it out later."

In contrast, while Washington did spend sometime enjoying the moment and the newfound opportunity, ultimately losing and watching Gray-Lawson steal the spotlight detracted from the feeling.

"It's a great feeling - it's better when you do it and you win," said Whitcomb. "But it's still a nice feeling to know that we're given another chance."

However, outside of the defensive lapse, what Gray-Lawson's ability to stay focused as she described is part of what makes her great as a player.

Calm aggression

"I just try to stay aggressive and trying to read defenses a little better - I'm getting better each game," said Gray-Lawson. 

Most impressive about this performance in which she shot an efficient 11-18 and made 8-12 free throw attempts was that she didn't score a lot simply by jacking up a lot of ill-advised shots. She was patient and picked the spots where her team needed her.

"Lexi's a calming factor for us in that - a fifth year senior," said Boyle. "She's the one that can kind of take over a game when we need to and settle us down and get us a point when we need to. It's been crucial to have her."

Of course, Cal fans - and Pac-10 opponents - are probably starting to get used to these types of performances. It's something she's done with some regularity this season. It's why Jackson was so adamant that the best defense against Gray-Lawson is to make sure she's simply not on the court.

"Get her in foul trouble, sit her down," said Jackson of how a team can prepare for Gray-Lawson. "We're not the only team she's abused -- I mean, she's done it to a lot of teams. And maybe I'm happy to say it wasn't 47. She's good. Like [Whitcomb] has hit buzzer beaters before, she's gone off for 30+. There was a series there in the first half - I think there were 3 or 4 games - where she was averaging like 35 points. She's our conference lead scorer. You saw what happened to Stanford, right? What, a year ago? You saw that? So she's good."

The minor inaccuracy in Jackson's statement is that Gray-Lawson is in fact the second leading scorer in the conference, .2 points behind Stanford's Nnemkadi Ogwumike. However, one could also argue that her performance in Seattle was actually much better than the 47 points she scored against Oregon State University earlier this season or the 37 against Stanford despite the fact that she didn't score any points.

So how might this have been her best performance to date?

After the Oregon State performance, I made the argument that statistically, the Stanford game was the best game of Gray-Lawson's career because "she had a much more efficient game against Stanford and also contributed more to her team in less time... most importantly she carried the team to a far greater extent against Stanford in 2009 as her percent valuable contributions demonstrates. In meaning more, it was a better performance."

A similar argument could be made about her performance against Washington using the following statistics:

Game Pts scored MEV PVC MVP Team Factors
v Stan, 2009 37 32.15 71.47% 36.59 3.26
v OSU, 2010 47 28.36 51.34% 25.76 1.99
v UW, 2010 35 32.63 62.44% 28.97 3.47

For a detailed explanation of these metrics, please see our statistics primer.

As previously stated, the Stanford game last year was her best game in terms of her contribution to the team's overall success - she was responsible for 71.47% of the team's total production in a 54-51 win over Stanford, which is impressive without saying much more.

However, the small difference between the Stanford and Washington games is in her individual performance. Independent of team success, her performance in the Washington game was slightly better than in the Stanford game. The team factors rating is especially interesting - with her 7 offensive rebounds, strong free throw shooting, and effective shooting from the field against Washington she made a slightly stronger contribution overall to the Four Factors of basketball success.

So we could now have a debate about the merits of team contributions vs. individual performance. But here's my argument for why yesterday's game against Washington is more impressive.

First, even against weaker competition, an overtime win on the road is no easy task. 

Second, the fact that she had to sit for so much time and still came back to contribute almost immediately against Washington is impressive.

But third, and most important, was the overall context - coming back in with her team down, the marked change in strategy for both teams when she was out, and coming back in with a hurt ankle to contribute not only by scoring, but also by setting up others and getting offensive rebounds.

It wasn't just an individual performance in spite of team principles - ala Allen Iverson circa 2000 - but an individual performance in a broader context of circumstances that elevate it from great basketball to an outstanding testament of basketball character.

What it comes down to is that Gray-Lawson affected the game both through her presence and absence. Moreover, perhaps the fact that fate worked against her to keep her out for extended periods of time are part of what made Gray-Lawson's performance so great - in scoring 35 points on 11-18 shooting despite barriers to even staying on the court she demonstrated why she's an All-American.

"She's a great player," said Washington center Regina Rogers, who got caught lunging at Gray-Lawson on occasion. "I think like coach said, she's an all American -- she's used to that. So even if I had my hand in her face she was in a zone. It's just like Sami could be in a zone - you know, anything could happen."

It was the totality of the performance - being forced to sit due to foul trouble then injury, returning from injury to take over a road game in overtime, and the efficiency with which she did it all - that make it not only arguably the best performance of her career at Cal, but also the performance that demonstrates who she is as an All-American.

Related Links:

UW v Cal Statistical Summary: Gray-Lawson Scores 35, Free Throws the Key

Photo: Whitcomb celebrating after her game-tying shot.

Tia Jackson commenting on Alexis Gray-Lawson's performance

Cal Women's Week in Review: The Legend of Gray-Lawson Grows

Transition Points:

  • Cal was rushing to catch a flight back to the Bay Area, so I didn't get to ask Boyle one more question: did she consider fouling at the end of regulation up 3 with 6 seconds let? And if so, why didn't she?

    The argument for doing so is outlined here:

    Up Three, Without the Ball: To Foul or Not? New Insight - TrueHoop Blog - ESPN
    Many statistical experts feel that NBA coaches are too timid in intentionally fouling when their team is on defense, up three points, in the closing seconds of a game. It's an old coaching question. Now there's some new evidence to inform the debate.

    The idea is that a good foul would give the opponents a measly two free throws and your team the ball. Presto, you've eliminated the possibility of a game-tying 3! Tidy! Nice! If all goes according to plan, that would ice the game, right?

    Is it true? Does that work?

    So, should Cal have fouled?

  • Boyle on the win: "Just happy to get out with a win – you know, you go on the road. And especially because we had to leave somebody at home with a concussion so we were down a big body tonight. And I knew that we probably had to press 'em and play uptempo as much as we could because we couldn’t handle their posts one on one down on the block. So I think our kids did pretty good after the second game, having to press at the end. And that can be a momentum change – that three at the end to send it to overtime – and we withstood that. And we Just battled it out in overtime."
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