California women's basketball coach Joanne Boyle said on media day that one of the greatest benefits of their exhibition game against an overmatched Vanguard team was to get them ready to play Rutgers University.
"It's for them to have to go through their warmup and referees and people in the stands and substitution patterns, those kind of things," remarked Boyle. "You don't want to do that the first time with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores against Rutgers."
And although it wasn't necessarily pretty, the Golden Bears were sharp enough last night to pull off a 66-57 win against Rutgers at Haas Pavilion.
"I am just excited to have our first game against some quality, quality competition end in a win at Haas," said Boyle in her post-game remarks. "Just being a young team, we are looking to see what we can potentially do this year. I know it wasn't the prettiest of games, but it was nice to grind it out and get a win at Haas and start our season off in a good light."
Aside from getting that first win out of the way, it's also worth noting the value of these win in the national landscape for Cal and the Pac-10: with USC defeating #22 Gonzaga University in L.A. yesterday before a young Cal team beat a Big East opponent to open their seasons, the conference that struggled a year ago looks to be off to a strong start.
And for Cal, it's a first look at not only how well a young team can perform against the type of pressure defense that Rutgers presents but also how well they're able to hold onto a lead.
Key statistic: turnover percentage
Against a team like Rutgers that you know is going to eventually throw pressure at you, one would probably expect a young team to commit some turnovers every now and then. But one of the major keys to the win for Cal was that after a 7 turnover first half (22.3% of their possessions), they only turned it over 3 times in the second half (8.9%). It was definitely something for Boyle to be proud of.
"We only had 10 turnovers," said Boyle after the game. "To have ten against an athletic team is great. I thought Eliza [Pierre] and Layshia [Clarendon] as the two primary ball handlers were good, but Afure also had to handle it a little bit out there in the open court. I thought we also did a great job on the double teams on the post. We didn't give them any easy looks in the post and they turned the ball over. That was part of the game plan."
While Cal took significantly better care of the ball in the second half after both teams played a sloppy first half, Rutgers never quite figured it out, committing 8 turnovers per half (24.02%).
Key Player: Eliza Pierre
As Boyle pointed out, more poised play from their primary ball handlers in the second half was a significant reason why the team played better and Pierre probably had the most impressive game as a ball handler. Although sometimes her energetic play can lead to miscues, Pierre had 6 assists and 1 turnover last night creating an assist on 27.57% of her possessions and only turning it over on 4.5% for an outstanding pure point rating of 8.33. Although she didn't shoot particularly well from beyond the arc, she did have a solid 2 point% of 44.44% and even showed improved comfort with her mid-range jumper. Add to that her 5 defensive rebounds and you have an impressive game for a guard.
Statistical MVP: Layshia Clarendon
While Pierre had a very efficient game as a ball handler, Clarendon was busy leading the team in scoring with 16 points and doing so efficiently. Clarendon was 6-10 from the field and had an outstanding true shooting percentage of 70.67%. And while Pierre was definitely the more aggressive player in terms of getting to the basket, Clarendon is showing that she can pick and choose her spots in the offense and knock down shots when needed.
Pierre said after the game that she thinks the team is better this year than last - even without standout Washington Mystics draftee Alexis Gray-Lawson - because they're more balanced in addition to having that experience from their WNIT championship run. And that was none more evident than in the play of their backcourt. Thinking back to last season in which they dropped a home game against San Jose State after which Boyle called her team "soft", this win shows a much more confident, mature and tough Cal team. It's not at all that any Stringer team could be considered soft - Cal just stepped up and fought their way out of a rut.
Rutgers MVP: Erica Wheeler
Neither team shot the ball particularly well, which is why offensive rebounding and turnovers played such a prominent role - and Cal won both of those battles. However, a bright spot in the game was the three point shooting of a sophomore of their own in reserve guard Erica Wheeler.
Cal played quite a bit of zone in the first half, almost daring Rutgers to shoot from beyond the arc. Wheeler took advantage, shooting 4-6 from the three point line with a true shooting percentage of 72.72% for a career-high 16 points. However, for whatever shooting proficiency they had in the first half, they couldn't find the touch in the second half: they shot only 1-6 from the three point line in the second half and Wheeler's four threes were all they had for the game.
With Cal controlling the boards for most of the game and limiting turnovers, Rutgers simply wasn't able to pull out a win during a poor shooting night.
Yet even as a smaller team than Cal, you have to imagine that this team will improve as the season goes on and manage to find their way. And if they do, the win could look better on Cal's resume later than it does today, even if it's only November.