Texas bigs too much for Cal to handle, Longhorns advance to Sweet 16 for the first time in 11 years
BERKELEY– With four players in double figures No. 5 seed Texas ousted No. 4 California, 73-70, from the NCAA tournament in second round action Sunday evening at Haas Pavilion.
The Longhorns advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003-04 when current head coach Karen Aston was an associate coach under coaching legend Jody Conradt. It will be the 12th appearance in a regional semifinal for Texas. They will face the winner of the Monday night Rutgers-Connecticut game in the Storrs, Conn. subregional of the tournament’s Albany region.
“I thought our team was really resilient tonight,” said Aston. “We got off to a little bit of a slow start but we expected that. We expected them to come out and punch us, and they did. I thought our team had a real calmness about them.”
While Cal received double digit contributions from senior point guard Brittany Boyd and sophomore guard Mercedes Jefflo, the Bears could not handle the interior presence of the Texas towers, 6-7 junior Imani McGee-Stafford and 6-5 sophomore Kelsey Lang.
Typically, Aston does not put the two centers together on the floor “because of matchup issues” but during the Big 12 tournament they played well together and having them work in tandem was a part of the game plan versus Cal.
“I think they do play really well together so I like playing them….There was potential for the game plan to work if they followed it.”
In Sunday night’s game, they spent significant minutes on the floor at the same time providing a wall of defense and easy shots on the offensive end. McGee-Stafford started and Lang joined her on the floor within four minutes after tipoff.
However, at the outset, Cal senior post, 6-3 Reshanda Gray appeared primed for the challenge of facing the Longhorn centers and earned the tip versus McGee-Stafford to start the game.
The Bears did not capitalize on the early possession and a turnover by Jefflo resulted in a bucket for Texas junior guard Empress Davenport.
Nevertheless, Jefflo made up for the early turnover with two three-point shots in the early minutes. Freshman guard Gabby Green also contributed with a trey and the Bears raced to an 11-3 lead.
Cal’s early defense stifled Texas until the Longhorns recovered and went on a 7-0 run to get within one point of Cal, 11-10 at 13:13 after a trey from freshman guard Brooke McCarty. The visitors from Austin were able to make the run as they kept Cal scoreless for over four minutes.
Midway through the half, McGee-Stafford and Lang began to make their presence known offensively but Cal’s guards kept the Bears in the game with outside shots. The teams went into the locker room tied at 27.
If the fans thought the back-and-forth was going to continue after the break, they were in for a surprise as the Longhorns came out re-energized to blast Cal with a 12-0 run fueled by balanced scoring as six players contributed to give Texas a 39-27 lead at 14:01.
Cal fought back but foul trouble began to hamper their efforts to overtake the Longhorns. Forward Mikayla Cowling accumulated four fouls by 9:34 and Gray had four at 8:22. The senior went to the bench, re-entered the game at 3:11 when Texas led 59-52. She promptly scored via a layup but then committed a foul on the other end of the court and exited for good at 2:35 with Texas up by four points.
Cal could not get enough defensive stops to overcome Texas down the stretch. Free throw shots from the Longhorns in the final 30 seconds sealed the deal for Texas.
“It was a great performance by Texas,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb about the matchup. “They handled our pressure well enough to win the game. Their inside game was a huge presence. I just thought their defensive effort was terrific. They made it tough on us. Obviously, that six-minute stretch to start the second half was the difference in the game, but I’m proud of how our players battled.”
McGee-Stafford led Texas with 20 points and 11 rebounds. It was her fourth consecutive double-double. Freshman guard Brooke McCarty contributed 16 points. Lang scored 14 points and pulled down six rebounds. Davenport added 11 points, five rebounds and five assists.
Jefflo paced Cal with 22 points while Boyd was one rebound shy of a triple-double with 17 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists. Sophomore forward Courtney Range added 12 points and six rebounds. Gray, who entered the game averaging 17.7 points and 7.2 rebounds finished with just seven points and three rebounds.
With the win the Longhorns boast a perfect 4-0 record in the state of California this season. Wins include:
- Stanford (Nov 20)
- UCLA (Nov. 23)
- Western Kentucky in the first round of the tournament (March 20)
- Cal (March 22)
Texas returns to home to resume classes after Spring break before heading to Albany for their Sweet 16 matchup.
- Texas now leads the all-time series, 5-2 after meeting California in NCAA Championship competition for the first time. Sunday also marked Texas’ first win road over Cal in series history.
- In NCAA tournament play, Texas is now 35-26 overall, 12-7 in the round of 32, 5-2 as a No. 5 seed, and 3-1 under Aston.
- Texas notched just its third win as a lower seed in the NCAAs.