Never mind the results for a moment - tonight's contest made one point perfectly clear: Never let it be said that a women's hoops game can't be entertaining.
It was UCLA versus Cal in a clash of interstate rivals at a packed Collins Court, and man alive did the two teams kick off the Pac-12 opener in style, in front of an announced crowd of 1,099 that was certainly buzzing throughout the entire game. Led by Thea Lemberger's career-best 26 points (more on her later), it was the Bruins who prevailed, 60-55, against an athletic Bears team. The takeaways from tonight's thriller:
The One-Two Punch
Simply put, Lemberger was on a roll tonight. Besides the fact that she shot an efficient 7-of-11 from the field, including 3-of-6 from beyond the arc, and 9-of-10 from the charity stripe, the sophomore guard seemed to have the game on a string, conducting her team toward easy scoring opportunities and keeping the Cal backcourt in check on defense. The icing on the cake came with the Bruins leading by just one with less than a minute remaining. Coming out of a timeout, Markel Walker got the ball to Lemberger, who promptly brought the house down with a corner three at the 0:44 mark to extend the lead to 84-80.
But if Lemberger made her imprints with much gusto, Walker did so more inconspicuously, quietly putting up 18 points and eight rebounds to go along with four steals. The junior forward bailed the Bruins out on numerous possessions, either draining spot-up jumpers or attacking the basket with the shot clock winding down.
"It's funny, Thea and Markel can sometimes argue like sisters because they're so alike," coach Cori Close said. "They're both very tough-minded. They express it differently, but they're very much the same in the way that their mindset is; they get very angry when they make a mistake because they hold themselves to a high standard. That's who they are, and that's who they have to be for this team."
A bizarre thing happened along the way in this game. Both Lemberger and Walker went out of the game multiple times, both because of cramps. And for a while, it appeared as if the Bruins would suffer yet another injury, but both players were on the floor by game's end.
The Stonewall Interior Defense
Forget the Bruin Bash, the Bruins staged one heck of a block party, courtesy of one Corinne Costa. The sophomore center might not be a phenom on the offensive end, but she had a defensive outing to remember, blocking a total of seven shots en route to breaking the school record for most blocks in a game (previously six, held by Olympic gold medalist Natalie Williams). Costa was a nightmare for the Bears' post players, who either had to (more times than not) unsuccessfully alter their shots, or face some serious swattage.
"During practice, it was all about just keeping our hands up on defense," Costa said. "I used to block shots in high school and just hadn't been able to do it here, but I think the timing is coming together again."
Sharing the Rock, and Sharing it Effectively
One aspect to UCLA's victory that might go unnoticed was the precision that was the passing game. On paper, the Bruins only totaled 13 assists, but there was a crispness and fluidity to the ball movement, made even more evident when compared to the Bears' inability to connect on post-entry passes. Lemberger, Mariah Williams, and Rebekah Gardner all played a part, swinging the ball around until a clear shot was available or finding their bigs down low.
"We've watched a lot of film on us having stagnant offensive possessions, so we've been making it a point to start moving the ball and making cuts," Lemberger said. "Cal played good defense for most of the shot clock, but moving the ball around and finding each other led to good looks for us."