“That’s a game we need to win,” said Gottlieb. “That’s a game we need to control down the stretch better, from myself to every possession on the court. We did not finish the game as well as we should have.”
Cal was led by Brittany Boyd’s near triple-double: 17 points, a game-high 13 rebounds, and nine assists. Afure Jemerigbe also scored 17, while Reshanda Gray had 13. Gennifer Brandon contributed 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Cal wasted a strong first half by going frigid down the stretch, making only 25% (8 of 32) in the second half.
Cassie Harberts also came up big for USC. In addition to her 15 points and 10 boards, Harberts battled the Cal bigs down low, winning many little battles that earned the Trojans possessions and points during their comeback.
USC also relied on their outside shooting. Crook hit five threes, and the Trojans made eight of 17 overall. Cal managed one in 11 attempts
“They made some big threes at critical times,” said Gottlieb. “If you look at one difference, that’s the difference in the game.”
After missed opportunities in the opening minutes, both squads heated up offensively. Cal made four of five to edge out ahead 9-8.
Gennifer Brandon hit off glass, and Reshanda Gray created multiple opportunities with her rebounding, finally scoring inside. Afure Jemerigbe slithered inside for another basket, and Cal had a 15-10 lead.
Ariya Crook scored consecutive baskets, beating everyone down the court, and USC fought back to 15-14, prompting a Cal time-out.
Boyd, who started the game grabbing every defensive rebound, began to dictate the game in other ways. She drove and found Jemerigbe for a three on a kickout, and then earned a trip to the free-throw line, knocking down both. She then executed the pick and roll perfectly, finding Gray and then Hartman alone inside for scores. Boyd would collect seven assists in the first half.
“Brittany is one of the best guards in the country,” said Gottlieb. “There are some things she does better than anyone else, and that was fully on display in the first half.”
On defense, Cal provided help and challenged shooters and outworked USC on the glass, with Gennifer Brandon dominating.
Jemerigbe hit a short jumper after another offensive rebound, Cal’s lead reached double-digits, 28-18.
USC countered by going big. Harberts attacked inside, finishing through contact, and earning a three-point play, and Kate Oliver hit a basket as a trailer when Cal failed to get back on defense.
Still, Cal hustled hard, earning multiple chances on offense. Boyd missed the second of two free-throws, but she and Brandon teamed up to crash the glass to retain possession. Boyd attacked the baseline and earned herself an unusual three-point play. Justine Hartman hit free-throw after an offensive rebound, and Cal’s lead was still 35-24, with 1:42 until halftime.
USC made their push, scoring three points at a time. Harberts had three-point play after USC broke Cal’s press. Jordan Adams hit a corner three, and Crook had another three-point play. Two more free-throws by Crook closed the gap to 41-35 at the break.
Whatever adjustments Gottlieb made during halftime, they did not include an effective way to stop Crook. who hit a three to open the second half scoring, and USC was within one possession, 41-38. The pace became frantic, and Cal earned multiple good looks at the basket, only to have shots rim out.
Boyd stabilized the Bears, bursting past everyone and scoring. On the next possession, Cal spaced the floor and Boyd again drove, this time finding Gray inside. Gray hit both free-throws.
Crook answered with a three to bring USC back within 47-43.
Hartman posted up strong inside, earning two free-throws. On the other end, Harberts returned the favor, scoring inside despite getting fouled.
Crook hit another three, and Desiree Bradley followed suit, and the game was tied at 51. A long two by Adams, and with 13:32 to go, the Trojans had their first lead since the beginning of the game.
The Bears fought back in the next couple of minutes, using their huge advantage at the free-throw line. Boyd hit three of four from the stripe, and Cal went back up 58-53.
Undaunted, Crook hit a banker from straightaway and then another three, and USC cut the lead to 60-58, with 8:45 to go.
For the next two and a half minutes, USC went scoreless, and Cal edged ahead, 64-58.
The game began to turn when the Bears began getting whistled for aggressiveness on the offensive glass, with Gray and Brandon each picking up a foul. Harberts took advantage, converting all four free-throws to draw USC within 66-63. To make matters worse, it was Gray’s fourth foul.
USC’s length in the zone defense continued to bother Cal. The Bears’ predictable offense resulted in multiple blocked shots inside.
Bradley’s three then tied the score at 66 with 4:46 to go, and USC had all the momentum.
With the paint clogged, Cal’s offense became stagnant, with the Bears taking and missing outside shots. Gray was forced to come back in, and Harberts attacked her, earning USC the 70-66 lead.
Cal continued to miss from outside, and even when the Bears managed to grab the offensive rebound, they would turn the ball over instead of getting to the line.
Boyd finally took it hard to the basket, and her three-point play gave Cal life, down 72-69 with 20 seconds left. Until Boyd’s basket, Cal had missed 10 of 11 field goal attempts.
Cal was forced to foul, and USC hit five of their final six free-throws. Cal managed only one more free-throw of its own, and the Trojans ran off the court with the win.
But at the end of the day, USC had Ariya Crook, and Cal had no answer.
“I saw a lot of good things tonight: 16 rebounds, kind of back to how we want to play, and a lot of contributions from different people,” said Gottlieb. “But they had one kid that went nuts and made lots of shots.”