It would be easy to look at the growth of the California Golden Bears women's basketball program and attribute the leaps they've made over the past two seasons to the arrival of flashy point guard Brittany Boyd.
Senior guard Layshia Clarendon mentioned earlier this year that she appreciated the arrival of the sophomore point guard last year because it relieved her from the role of primary ball handler that she was forced into during the 2010-11 season, when Cal had a somewhat disappointing year that fell short of both a NCAA tournament bid and defending the WNIT title.
However, with Boyd out due to a groin injury for tonight's game against the Oregon Ducks, Clarendon started the game sharing point guard duties with Eliza Pierre and helped lead Cal to a 77-55 win at Haas Pavilion tonight.
"Brittany's a great point guard," said senior Talia Caldwell after the game. "Her pace is great. She reads the floor well - I mean, her vision is incredible. So she gets everyone easy baskets. So, yeah, she can just do a lot even with a zone where it's just trying to make you lull, she can just make a zone look silly. So she does a lot for us and we knew we all had to step up."
It's hard to consider it a sign of growth for Clarendon as an individual, but it does reflect how far this team has come in two years.
The victory was their 12th straight, which matches a program record set by the illustrious 2008-09 team just before Clarendon and her fellow seniors arrived on campus. And aside from showing how resilient this unit can be in the face of potential obstacles, Cal's performance was yet another demonstration of the balance that has made them so difficult to beat and a fixture in the top 10 of the national polls this season.
Without Boyd - whose status is currently "day-to-day" - to orchestrate their offense, Cal certainly struggled to score in the first half: the game was tied at 18 as late as the four minute mark in the first half as Cal was only able to muster 29.3% shooting.
"I thought we came out with really good energy and good ball movement and went up like 10-0, I think," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said after the game of what contributed to their early struggles. "And then we just started missing shots. And I thought when we missed some good looks it affected our demeanor a little bit and I thought that we just couldn't get in a good rhythm. So we talked in the locker room after the game that it really helps to shoot the ball well."
But hot shooting from Clarendon helped them to establish a cushion heading into halftime and junior guard Afure Jemerigbe stepped up in the second half to knock down some timely threes that helped to seal the deal. Jemerigbe shot 3-for-5 from beyond the arc in the second half on her way to 13 points overall, continuing a stretch over the past three games in which she has shot 10-for-23 (43.47%) from 3-point range.
"Fu's shots didn't fall just because it was luck," said Caldwell. "Everyone works really hard. Like, her and [coach Kai Felton] are always in the gym, like seriously. So it never surprises me when Fu has a good game because she works really hard on her shot with the assistant coaches."
While Jemerigbe's second half scoring performance was one key to helping the Bears shoot 54.8% in the second half, she got ample support from their post players who struggled throughout the first half but shook it off at halftime to help balance out their offense.
Clarendon led four Cal players in double-digit scoring with a game-high 14 points. Jemerigbe chipped in 4 assists and no turnovers to go along with her shooting performance. Senior Talia Caldwell recorded the 19th double-double of her career (10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds) on a night that she was honored for scoring her 1000th point prior to the game. Junior Gennifer Brandon stepped up for five offensive rebounds to overwhelm Oregon in the post. Pierre, who got her first start since the beginning of last season, wasn't the ball handler that Boyd is but brought the defensive intensity to bother Oregon's shooters and create turnovers that weren't credited to her in the boxscore.
Oregon's leading scorer, Devyn Galland, was their only player to hit double digits while fellow guard Jordan Loera chipped in nine points and eight rebounds. Star freshman Jillian Alleyne was held to just seven points on 1-for-3 shooting.
"I thought the way the stat sheet looks is very indicative of our team: a lot of people in double figures, mixing it around," Gottlieb said of her team. "I thought several people did small individual things to lead to a better collective effort. Fu and Talia stepped up to show that we're balanced and versatile and we'll take it."
Boyd's absence ultimately just provided the context for yet another example of what makes them so special: with a key cog in their system missing, they got contributions from everyone and kept their momentum going. It was hardly their best performance, they'll unquestionably need better to fulfill the true potential of this unit, but they still beat a team they were supposed to beat by 22 points.
"This is the way that we're built," Gottlieb said, when asked about two threes that Mikayla Lyles hit in the first half off the bench to help Cal take the halftime lead. "We're built to be able to withstand somebody being out or somebody having a bad shooting night or some early foul trouble. And I think that we've come to this point where everyone not only knows their role, but really embraces their role.
"And Mik is the same, whether she plays two minutes or 25 minutes. And I just think she's really confident in that. And that's good for us to see; that's what you want to be doing late in the year. And I think, you know, Gen Brandon missed a game - she's having an All-American type season and Reshanda (Gray) steps up. Reshanda misses a few games and Justine (Harman) gives big minutes. I think that's just- we feed off of it."
Their identity is not defined by one player or even one style of play, but instead the ability to adapt so well to whatever their opponents throws at them or the hand bad luck deals them. If we can take anything away from this game against a struggling Oregon program, that's it.
For more notes on the game - including Boyd's status - check out the storystream with updates from Haas Pavilion.