We must forgive those who have failed to acknowledge the full extent of California freshman guard Eliza Pierre's potential.
Hidden among a talented group of 6 (active) Cal freshmen - 4 of which are currently starters - in a conference full of talented freshmen, it makes sense that Pierre might not stand out.
Fellow freshmen Genifer Brandon, DeNesha Stallworth, and Talia Caldwell are among the top 15 in the Pac-10 in rebounding, not to mention Stallworth's 30 point performance against USC. Freshman guard Layisha Clarendon came in as the 2009 California Ms. Basketball Girls State Player of the Year.
And obviously, senior Alexis Gray-Lawson demands the majority of the attention as the leader of the team.
Even in last night's 60-43 win against Washington, Pierre had a stat line that might be overlooked in the box score: 7 points on 3-7 shooting, 3 assists, 1 turnover, and 6 steals.
However, the story of the game probably starts with Pierre's 6 steals, although the defensive impact she had on the game was immeasurable.
And one thing's for sure now: Washington knows exactly who Pierre is if they didn't before.
"She's gonna see Pierre when she goes to sleep tonight," said Cal play-by-play announcer Barry Tompkins of Washington point guard Sarah Morton, who had 7 turnovers on the night, many of which were caused by Pierre's pressure, if not credited to Pierre as steals.
Morton may not be the only one seeing a Cal uniform in her sleep - Cal's swarming, trapping full court defense led by Pierre's tenacious effort against Morton led to 18 second-half turnovers for Washington. Washington turned the ball over on 51.13% of their second half possessions.
As evidenced by the fact that only 5 of those were Cal steals, most of those were simply mental mistakes by the Huskies: travels, errant passes, and offensive fouls that were a response to the defensive flurry.
Even if Washington had entered the second half with more than a one point cushion, it's very difficult to imagine winning a game in which you give the ball back to your opponent on literally every other possession.
It was probably safe to assume that rebounding would decide this game, as Washington coach Tia Jackson described to Seattle media on Tuesday. Rebounding is Cal's biggest strength and Washington's biggest weakness this season and Cal did win the offensive rebounding percentage margin by a 9% margin.
However, while Washington players and coaches were aware of Cal's defensive pressure and prepared for it in the days before their trip to the Bay Area the practice didn't quite approximate the game experience.
Click here for a statistical breakdown of the game.
"That’s the first time they've gotten it across half court in 4 possessions," said Tompkins.
During one two minute period in the second half, Washington made four consecutive turnovers. After a Pierre steal with 13:24 left and Cal up 42-32, Washington traveled before getting the ball over halfcourt on the next three possessions. And it wasn’t just Pierre haunting Morton – forward Mackenzie Argens made the first one, guard Kristi Kingma made the next, and point guard Christina Rozier made the third.
While Pierre’s initial pressure on Morton and/or Rozier as soon as the ball was inbounded had a major impact on Washington’s ability to advance the ball upcourt – she smothered whoever first touched the ball -- it was a team effort. Cal was trapping anytime Washington got the ball near a corner or the sideline and forced Washington into frenzied decision making.
And after Washington forced Cal into a nearly 8 minute first half scoring drought, it was Cal that forced Washington into an 8 minute period without a made field goal in the second half. The big difference is how they capitalized on their opponents dry spells: Cal went on a 20-3 run during their dominant defensive period.
Part of that is having a player like Pierre who was able to get the steal and beat everyone down court for a layup. But another part of that was Cal’s athletic forwards who are able to trail a fast break and get offensive rebounds in transition that lead to easy second chance baskets.
However, this game was not exactly a "tale of two halves"
Statistically, both teams played really poorly in the first half – an average team usually puts up a model estimated value rating of 30 or so per half. At halftime, Washington had a MEV of 13.56 while Cal had a MEV of 14.91.
Perhaps it could be considered something of a defensive stalemate – Cal had 6 first half steals compared to the 5 steals they got in their second half full court pressure and Washington held Cal to 34.6% shooting (although UW only shot 38.46% themselves).
Nevertheless, it was Washington that set the tone early – Cal was forced into running half court sets, a situation they just don’t appear entirely comfortable with. They looked out of sync, threw entry passes too high, and just couldn’t seem to establish consistent offense.
Cal had 11 first half turnovers – turning the ball over on 31.42% of their possessions – and entered halftime down 25-24.
The second half turnaround might best be captured by the huge swing in MEV: Cal had a MEV of 31.81 while Washington’s sank even further to -4. The explanation is simple – turnovers and missed shots hurt a team and Washington had 18 turnovers and shot only 4-17 (23.5%) in the second half. Conversely, Cal cut their turnover percentage to 14.12% in the second half and increased their offensive rebounding rate to 43% while scoring 25 points off Washington turnovers.
While it’s only one game it does make a big statement about Cal: this is a young athletic team who needs to rely heavily on their defense and probably needs to avoid half court situations at all costs, especially against teams with larger post players like Washington’s Regina Rogers, who led Washington with 13 points on 5-7 shooting. The fact that they are 9th in the Pac-10 in 3 point field goal percentage (27.3%, 1-9 vs. Washington) only makes them easier to defend -- teams can pack it in and just cut off their penetrating guards and focus on stopping their athletic posts that thrive on movement off the ball.
But then you come back to a breakout defensive game like Pierre's and remember they're just freshmen.
If Cal's season can be considered an exercise in monitoring future potential, last night was a brief glimpse into what Pierre could become.
Mental mistakes, turnovers, bad shots, and generally erratic play need to be expected -- and tolerated. For every terribly frustrating game, fans will get a game like Pierre's defensive performance last night or Stallworth's 30 point performance against USC.
Moreover, when you consider Pierre's talent as a complement to everything else Cal has in this freshman class - post scoring, rebounding, ball handling, and, of course, defense. It becomes evident that this team not only has a bright future, but will also be extremely fun to follow over the next four years.
Of course, they are not exactly at the same level of Baylor University - which features standout Brittney Griner, who is changing the face of women's college basketball - but barring significant injuries, the sky is the limit for this team 2-3 years down the road.
And perhaps if there is one advantage in watching women's college basketball over men's, Cal (and Baylor, for that matter) embody it: you know that you will get a chance to watch this team grow together for four years and really have a shot at doing something great.