Cal's win over Georgia fit neatly into their season's narrative

USA TODAY Sports

All season long the California Golden Bears have battled to prove themselves and pull out close games on pure heart. So it's fitting that it took overtime to beat the similarly gritty Georgia Bulldogs to make a first-ever trip to the Final Four.

To put the California Golden Bears' 65-62 overtime win over the Georgia Bulldogs in context, it helps to return to mood of the media after a few non-conference games.

Perhaps the best way to describe it would be uncertainty.

After a physical 72-56 win against the Georgetown Hoyas, there was a question about how Cal would compare to teams in the Big East, traditionally a much stronger conference than the Pac-12. Their 88-79 win against the Kansas Jayhawks in late-December was a big deal because it was coach Lindsay Gottlieb's first win over a ranked opponent as Cal's head coach and the program's first home win over a ranked opponent since 2009. Even the George Washington win was special in that it continued a program-best 10-1 start, which had people talking about whether the team could challenge the Stanford Cardinal in conference play.

Setting aside the GW game, those non-conference wins at home weren't easy. The road, with a tough loss to Duke and a close win against Northwestern, weren't any easier. During conference play, there were plenty of scares with a number of games coming right down to the wire or going overtime even before they were pummeled by UCLA in the Pac-12 tournament.

At some point, you had to accept that this team was very good - and that the nation's comparable teams weren't quite as good - but all those close wins and sometimes ugly performances made it hard to figure out just how good this team could become.

In short, to begin this season it was an open question as to whether they could beat Stanford and figuring out a way to outlast Stanford - a mainstay in the Final Four in recent years - in the NCAA Tournament seemed ambitious.

Yet the milestones kept rolling in for this team throughout the season, the team secured a two-seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and then made their way into uncharted territory by advancing to the program's first-ever Elite Eight, one round further than arch-rival Stanford. Now here they are headed to the Final Four for the first-time ever after facing a series of similarly hard-nosed, rugged teams and eventually beating the team that beat Stanford.

And fittingly, the win that propelled them into the Final Four was a close win in overtime that was mostly ugly, particularly when you look at the numbers.

Key statistic: Cal's ball control

First, it's been a while since I've watched a game in its entirety in which both teams have had an effective field goal percentage under 40%. Neither team hit double digit scoring in the first 12 minutes of the game. And when you consider that Cal put up 70 shots to Georgia's 63 for the entire game...well, that's a lot of bricks to witness.

That means that every means of creating extra possessions took on greater significance. And as long as we're talking about poor shooting and extra possessions, it's Cal's ability to limit turnovers - something they've done exceptionally well at all season in part because teams play a sagging zone against them - that might be most impressive here.

eFG

Tov%

Oreb%

Fta/Fga

Georgia

39.68%

13.43%

36.36%

28.57%

Cal

37.86%

10.05%

50.98%

34.29%

Weighted

eFG%

Tov%

Oreb%

fta/fga

Georgia

0.18

-0.28

-0.61

-0.12

Four Factors statistics for California-Georgia in the Spokane regional final.

A few people have talked about this game going at Georgia's pace and to some extent it did, but Cal did a great job of controlling the ball and not allowing the Bulldogs to establish the type of turnover differential that would help get them a bunch of easy scoring opportunities in transition.

That becomes even more impressive when considering the way Georgia forced turnovers throughout the season: their opponents' turnover rate was over 25% entering the tournament. For Cal to turn the ball over just nine times in a game that went overtime against this team was huge.

But you can also see how much Cal helped themselves on the offensive boards: they grabbed the rebound on slightly more than half of their own missed shots giving themselves second chance scoring opportunities. And in a tight battle with poor shooting like this one, that makes a difference -no matter what you think about their weaknesses or how they respond to the zone defenses that nearly every opponent has thrown at them, what has consistently helped them hang around to put themselves in position to win even on awful shooting nights has been their offensive rebounding.

Ironically in light of the large offensive rebounding differential, Georgia actually won the battle of second chance points 18-17.

Georgia statistical MVP: Anne Marie Armstrong's rebounding takes the game to OT

Although Reshanda Gray controlled the boards with a game-high 8 offensive rebounds, perhaps no second chance scoring opportunity played a larger role in this game than Georgia senior forward Anne Marie Armstrong's offensive rebound and putback with seven seconds left in regulation.

Whereas Cal's post rotation is arguably the most powerful left standing, Armstrong's quickness helped her find her way to two of her four offensive rebounds in the final 13 seconds of regulation that led to the putback. It was a fitting moment for a player who came up big statistically despite not being a focal point of Georgia's offense.

With 5-for-7 shooting from the field and a pair of threes, Armstrong finished the game with a game-high true shooting percentage of 85.71% to go with her team-high offensive rebounding percentage of 13.19%.

Key player: Shacobia Barbee's aggression keeps Georgia alive in overtime

Following her clutch performance in Georgia's upset of Stanford, freshman Shacobia Barbee came through again with 4 of the team's 10 points in overtime.

Although she wasn't terribly efficient (once again), her ability to get to the line 9 times and finish with a double-double (team-highs of 14 points and 10 rebounds) as a guard was impressive. Similar to the point above about Cal's ability to overcome poor shooting with ball control and offensive rebounding, Barbee's ability to get to the line for easy points and Armstrong's clutch rebounding (is that a thing?) made the difference for Georgia.

Cal statistical MVP: Layshia Clarendon

'nuff said.

There's a lot that could be said about Clarendon's performance against Georgia and in the tournament so far that's probably worth a longer (WNBA Draft-related) piece. But for now, let's keep the focus on the narrative of the season: even on a night where Clarendon's efficient scoring really stood out, it's still the team's identity as a balanced and versatile unit that has to define this win and their path to the Final Four.

Wade Watch list selection Gennifer Brandon was held scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting, but Talia Caldwell went 5-for-10 with 10 points and Gray had a team-high 11 rebounds. Brittany Boyd had a sub-par night and had to sit after picking up a pair of fouls early in the second half, but Clarendon stepped up to run the show in her absence and kept the team in the game. Afure Jemerigbe didn't knock down the threes that Georgia's zone offered her, but came up with two blocks in the final two minutes of regulation to preserve Cal's slim lead a little longer.

Eliza Pierre was Eliza Pierre.

That's what's make Cal so difficult to beat: you can zone 'em up and try to force a poor shooting night and they'll get the boards. You can be fortunate enough to catch Brandon on an off night when layups are rolling off the rim, but they'll find another option in the post. You can take Boyd out of the game and Clarendon steps up to run the team. And, again, Eliza Pierre is just going to be everywhere even if she doesn't score a point.

Cal is flawed and in the lead-up to the Final Four those flaws will probably be dissected used to dismiss Cal as a feel-good underdog that got a little lucky that both Penn State and Stanford were knocked off by others. But the reason they're here, well exceeding preseason expectations of all except the most optimistic fans, is that they simply haven't succumbed to the obvious weaknesses that lead to games like this one.

For more on Cal's path to the Final Four, check out our Spokane region storystream.

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