- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
- 0 Shares
SEATTLE -- No one has been a bigger cheerleader for the power of the Pac-12 Conference this season than UCLA coach Cori Close.
She has preached the gospel wherever she has gone, talked up her conference mates in front of plenty of microphones and cajoled people to see the world the way that she does.
But sometimes words aren't quite enough. So on Saturday night in KeyArena, the Bruins took action.
A UCLA team that was hankering for a breakthrough against the big dogs of the Pac-12 pulled it off at a very big moment. UCLA smacked No. 5 California 70-58 in the Pac-12 semifinals in a game that wasn't nearly that tight. The Bruins blew past the Bears to lead by 21 at the half, built a 26-point lead four minutes into the second, and then held on as Cal scrambled to make a desperate comeback.
But the Bears never got closer than the final margin, and UCLA walked off the floor with an impressive win at a time when important people pay close attention.
UCLA beat Oklahoma in the preseason when the Sooners were healthy and ranked No. 10, and took down then-No. 12 Texas on the road. They have been ranked nearly all season. But Saturday's statement win, over a top-five team in a postseason tournament, solidifies what the Bruins hope is a strong NCAA seed, perhaps as high as a No. 3.
"I think we've made an argument," Close said. "I think the reality of the situation is that just because you're asleep some of the time when we are playing out here on the West Coast doesn't mean there's not great basketball going on."
It was great basketball that got UCLA its biggest win of the season and a third ticket to the Pac-12 title game in the past four years. The Bruins take on top-seeded Stanford on Sunday (ESPN2/WatchESPN, 8 p.m. ET). The Cardinal, who battled to a 60-47 victory over fourth-seeded Colorado in the late game, will be playing for their seventh straight tournament title, well aware that what UCLA did to Cal on Saturday could easily happen to them.
Cal beat UCLA twice in the regular season, including a 79-51 defeat at Pauley Pavilion that stung the Bruins.
They turned that hurt on Cal in a shocking way Saturday, beating the Bears in every facet of the game.
"Even when they started making a run, we came together," said senior forward Markel Walker, who finished with a game-high 23 points. "It wasn't one player looking for their own. We didn't break apart."
For Cal, Saturday's loss was a glass of ice-cold water to the face. The Bears were taken out of their game from the outset, stymied offensively by the Bruins' zone, beaten on the glass, outrun in transition and unable to get enough stops on the defensive end. UCLA bottled up Cal's game in the paint and forced the Bears to rely on perimeter shooting, which is not their strength. Meanwhile, UCLA shot nearly 50 percent from the floor.
The Bears looked shell-shocked and left the floor with half-hearted waves to their fans, who came north hoping to see Cal, which a week ago clinched a share of its first Pac-12 regular-season title, win it all.
Still, the loss shouldn't be too costly when it comes to NCAA tournament seedings on Selection Monday.
Cal's position as a No. 2 seed, considering the Bears' body of work -- this was Cal's first loss to a non-top-five team this season -- seems solid. No. 8 Penn State, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 10 Maryland also suffered losses on Saturday in their respective conference tournament semifinals.
Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb made the case for Cal to stay at a No. 2 as she remained convinced her team was not looking ahead to the conference title game.
"I think what the Pac-12 has wanted all along are really good teams," Gottlieb said. "So when we beat one another, it looks like a great win. This should be a great win for UCLA."
Senior guard Layshia Clarendon called it a "wake-up call."
"This doesn't ruin our season in any way," said Clarendon, who finished with 14 points. "If anything, it will make us more hungry for the tournament. We wanted it and we didn't get it, and now it will be how we respond. I think it will affect us for the positive, for sure."
UCLA will have to put this game away as well. The Bruins have another tough task on Sunday against the Cardinal, who got another superhuman performance from Chiney Ogwumike (25 points, 19 rebounds) against the Buffaloes.
"How deep do your goals go?" Close asked. "Cal was our opponent today that was in the way of what our goal was -- to come win the Pac 12 tournament. So, if your goal goes deep enough, you put it away and start focusing on what you have to do to prepare for the next formidable opponent. It takes mental discipline and habits of preparation. That's why we don't just turn the switch on excellence. We've been practicing excellence all year long."
15dBonnie D. Ford