Both the Washington Huskies and California Golden Bears needed a win in Seattle yesterday.
Washington had something to prove after claiming they weren't actually 29 points worse than Stanford. Meanwhile, despite returning four starters from last season's WNIT championship team, Cal was at risk of returning to Berkeley after being swept in Washington for the first time in coach Joanne Boyle's career.
So with arguably more on the line for Cal - or at the very least, higher expectations entering the season - UW's 57-48 win has to be considered an upset even though they were the home team.
"We've done a lot of talking this week," said a disappointed Boyle after the loss yesterday. "It's time to stop talking and put up."
If nothing else, the fact that Cal had every opportunity to put Washington away early and cruise to an easy win makes this one more disappointing.
Entering the game tied with UCLA as the conference's best offensive rebounding team by percentage, Cal got up 9 - 2 in the first four minutes of the game by simply dominating the boards.
After being completely out-muscled on the boards in Friday night's 29-point loss to Stanford, Cal looked to be following the blueprint laid out by their Bay Area counterparts to perfection.
Then things started to unravel - after getting 4 offensive rebounds in the first four minutes, Cal only got 4 in the final 16 minutes. And while Cal finished the half nearly doubling UW's rebounding performance (19-10) and beating UW on the offensive boards 8 - 5 (62% - 31%), they only outscored Washington 7-6 in second chance points.
It all just went downhill from there.
"One of the things is that the minute we face adversity, the minute one or two things go wrong we just fall apart," said Boyle. "We don't respond to adversity well at all."
And ultimately, those first four minutes ended up casting a dark shadow over the outcome.
"When adversity hits us, we just don't know how to act," said Caldwell. "I don't know if it comes from youth, growth - I don't know what it is. But it's just us personally, we need to come together as a team and just figure things out."
Most knowledgeable fans probably would have expected a Cal win after a loss to Washington State on Friday left a sour taste in their mouths. And that expected outcome began to seem inevitable when they quickly established what was quite obviously the clearest advantage for either team entering the game. Yet in the end, reinforcing expectations early only set the stage for a collapse and their inability to translate the clearest advantage in the game into points both defined the game and made it even more disappointing than a loss on its own.
"We're not a team that's competing, we're not working hard, we don't play together," said Boyle, who said this is the biggest challenge she's had as a coach. "I'm uncertain of what's going on. I'm there to help ‘em. And I don't think it's offenses and defenses. It's either you work hard like we do in spurts and you choose to do that for 40 minutes or we don't. And how to light a fire under them and make ‘em wanna do that day in and day out is my challenge right now."
Before even getting into what UW did to make Cal collapse, in the immediate aftermath of the game it just seemed that Cal fell into some malaise of unfocused confusion.
"We're just in this place of-," Boyle started before pausing for a few seconds. "What are we playing for? Why are we playing the game? What are we doing? So everything comes crashing down."
Boyle wasn't having any of that talk of youth undermining what could have been a win - four of their five starters played on last year's WNIT championship team last season, which is part of what contributed to early optimism about the team.
"It was just ourselves," said center Talia Caldwell when asked about what was said in the locker room after the game. "Just us not working hard. Us not taking pride in things. It was just us personally needing to think about what we need to do."
Nevertheless, you can't avoid crediting UW's defense for the win.
Key statistic: UW defense holds Cal to 25% shooting in the second half
After being dominated on the boards early, UW's defensive effort started with controlling the boards - after starting to slow Cal on the boards in the first half, UW completely negated that advantage in the second half.
"One of the main goals for us was to limit them from offensive rebounding," said UW point guard Sarah Morton. "I think they went into halftime with 8 offensive boards and we were like, ‘Ok, no more - they can't get their 16' which is what they average. And we held them to 10, which is our goal."
After getting dominated in the first half on the offensive boards, UW managed to win that battle by not necessarily flipping the situation, but maintaining their own pace while just stopping Cal entirely - UW outrebounded Cal 25-13 overall in the second half and 7-2 on the offensive boards (39% - 10%). Considering that Cal entered the game with a offensive rebounding percentage of 43.5% that's impressive.
"Something that we've been doing consistently, for the most part, is keeping teams below their average," said Jackson in her opening comments about their defense against Cal, 6th in the conference in scoring at 67.5 points per game prior to yesterday. "Tonight I believe we kept them 20 below their season average and outrebounded the 5th ranked team in the country...it was just fun."
Part of that was Washington's ability to neutralize Cal's particularly strong post scoring, with Caldwell and DeNesha Stallworth accounting for more than a third of the team's scoring output over the course of the season.
"They really crowd the post," said Caldwell, Cal's leading scorer who was held to 1-for-4 shooting in the second half. "It's very hard to get one-on-one touches, but when you do get ‘em today I did not finish well. There are some things I need to go in the gym and work on, personally for myself. They really try to crowd the rebounders and make our guards have tough touches so it was kinda hard to get the ball in there."
But you really have to go beyond that - Washington really didn't give Cal much of anything, most notably holding them to 25% shooting. And those shooting struggles might have been where now-graduated scoring dynamo Alexis Gray-Lawson's absence most stood out.
"Just like Devanei (Hampton) and Ash (Walker), they just - competitors, winners," said Boyle when asked about how Gray-Lawson's loss is impacting the team. "Just competed till the buzzer went off. Just did everything. You don't just score 47 being lackadaisical and unfocused. That's where I need to get this team."
Cal is clearly forced to rely more heavily on moving the ball to create shots, but against a much-improved UW defense they just kept turning the ball over instead of finding scoring opportunities. Whether it was illegal screens, throwing the ball out of bounds on entry passes, getting stripped while driving to the basket, drawing three second calls or stepping out of bounds on the baseline Cal looked completely out of sorts throughout the game turning the ball over 21 times (31% of their possessions).
"Generally, we'll go for a good 30, 35 minutes of solid (defense), but we didn't let down, not at all," said Jackson when asked what impressed her most about her team's defensive performance. "They wanted to get to the basket, they wanted to get the ball inside and we weren't having it tonight. And the kids were just out there ready to say no to that."
And whether it was a lack of focus, a leadership void, or simply poor chemistry, Cal looked like a team longing for departed heroes instead of capitalizing on their considerable tournament experience and talent advantage.
"I'm ok with it not being a star, but then everybody has to make up for Lexi's loss," said Boyle. "Everybody has to make up for the posts graduating. We gotta make up for it. And we have to be a better team. And it's not going to fall in one person's shoulders and that's ok - it should make us better."
Joanne Boyle's post-game quote about this being the biggest challenge of her career.
Photos of the game on Swish Appeal's Facebook page.