No. 7 California 55, Utah 50

California knew its opening stretch of Pac-12 games was going to

be tough.

Friday night was an indication as the No. 7 Golden Bears

survived a furious Utah rally to hold on for a 55-50 victory in the

teams’ conference opener.

”We struggled to score in the second half and honestly that’s a

concern, but I knew it was going to be a tight game,” Cal coach

Lindsay Gottlieb said. ”I like the way we responded down the

stretch.”

After Utah pulled within four points with 2:34 remaining on

Michelle Plouffe’s pull-up jumper, the Bears forced the Utes into a

pair of misses.

Cal then made 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal the

win.

The Utes’ missed opportunities early in the second half were

critical after they held Cal scoreless over the first six minutes

but managed just six points of their own.

”We stopped them time after time,” Utah coach Anthony Levrets

said. ”With a team that’s athletic, you have to make sure you have

good long possessions and make them guard you and hope that you can

make a few. We missed some easy ones, but Cal gets a lot of credit.

They are a very talented athletic group.”

Layshia Clerendon led Cal with 18 points and Afure Jemerigbe had

13, including 11 in the first half when she hit 5 of 6 shots.

”We feel like we’re a team that has five threats to score at

any time,”Gottlieb said. ”Afure really just took what was there.

Tonight they focused on loading the paint to stop penetration by

Brittany Boyd and our post players. . She’s a big-time guard and to

have her be able to step up when we needed was important.”

In the second half, the key were back-to-back 3-pointers by

Clerendon and Boyd followed by Gennifer Brandon’s short baseline

jumper that bumped Cal’s lead to 13 and forced the Utes into rally

mode.

Plouffe scored 16 points to lead Utah (9-3, 0-1), which trailed

by 13 points with 6:10 remaining before pulling within three in the

closing seconds. Taryn Wicijowski’s jumper with 2 seconds left cut

the Utes’ deficit to 53-50, but Jemerigbe was fouled and sank both

free throws to seal the win.

Iwalani Rodrigues and Wicijowski had 11 points apiece for

Utah.

Boyd added 11 points to help the Golden Bears (11-1, 1-0) get

the program’s 600th victory and gain momentum heading into Sunday’s

game at No. 20 Colorado.

After that, they face No. 4 Stanford at home Tuesday followed by

a rematch with the Cardinal in Palo Alto the following Sunday.

After a home game against USC, they face No. 16 UCLA and a second

round of games against Colorado and Utah.

The Bears already are off to their best start in program

history, their only loss coming at No. 4 Duke on Dec. 2. They have

quality wins over Georgetown and Kansas.

And now they have won their conference opener for the first time

since 2008-09 – the year they reached the round of 16 in the NCAA

tournament.

”We have a pretty complete team,” Gottlieb said. ”We can

score in the paint, on the perimeter. What we don’t want to go

through are lulls.”

Utah, meanwhile, knows it must find a way to score more, and get

production from others besides Plouffe, a member of Canada’s 2012

Olympic team.

Plouffe spent the final 10 minutes of the first half in foul

trouble. During that time, Cal bumped its lead from one point to

12.

”No question we got in a good flow when she was out,”Gottlieb

said. ”I don’t think that was a coincidence. She’s a big part of

what they do ”

Cal held a 24-16 edge on points in the paint and 8-2 advantage

on second-chance points. Utah shot just 36 percent in the game but

held Cal to 28.6 percent in the second half.

”We make a few more shots tonight, I think we win this game,”

Levrets said.