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Cal focused on toughness, Aari McDonald in rematch vs. Arizona in Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: MAR 01 Women’s Cal at Arizona Photo by Jacob Snow/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

LAS VEGAS — The Big Dance arrived early for the California Golden Bears.

Moments after stunning Arizona State 71-67 in the opening round of the Pac-12 Women’s Basketball Tournament, No. 12 seed Cal circled around the Pac-12 Network set and showed off their moves.

“We like to dance,” freshman Cailyn Crocker said. “Chen (Yue), one of our teammates, she was like, ‘what do you want to get out of this game to move on’? And she’s like, ‘I want to dance.’ So we went and danced.”

The last-place Golden Bears have reason to feel exuberant after back-to-back upset wins against Arizona and ASU. The No. 4-seeded Arizona Wildcats will look to put an end to Cal’s dancing and exact some revenge when the two schools face off Friday at 12;30 p.m. MT in the Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinals.

The Golden Bears arrived in Tucson last Sunday on a three-game losing streak and safely off the radar of the rest of the conference. Since then, Cal has doubled its win total against Pac-12 opponents, starting with a stunning 55-54 victory at Arizona.

The winning game plan against the Wildcats and Sun Devils: fierce defense and clutch late shooting. Cal held Arizona to 36% shooting and forced 15 UA turnovers. The Wildcats tightened up under pressure and let the game slip away.

“We have to bring that toughness,” Cal head coach Charmin Smith said after beating ASU. “That’s been the difference for us. When we play tough, when we are extremely aggressive, it really changes the whole feel for us.”

The Golden Bears out-hustled ASU for much of the second half on Thursday, outscoring them 50-31.

After ASU went up by 11 points with just under two minutes to go in the third quarter, Cal flipped the switch defensively, forcing five consecutive turnovers. Cal used a 20-0 run to take a nine-point lead with 8:47 remaining.

“Coach was just telling us that we’ve got to chip away and come back and fight like we usually do,” freshman Jazlen Green said. “That’s what we proved in third quarter, mainly staying with it and our momentum is going to come. They’re going to get runs and we’re going to get ours.”

Senior Jaelyn Brown led Cal with 22 points and five steals, while Crocker scored 20 points. Green added another 14 point and four steals. Three of the Golden Bears’ top four scorers Thursday were freshmen.

“It is really special to have freshman that you can call upon on and say, ‘hey, go make a play,” Smith said.

Though the Golden Bears have plenty of fight in them, they expended much of that energy taking down ASU. The back-to-back day format of a conference tournament provides a challenge for any team, but especially for one as young as Cal.

“With Arizona we for sure have to take care of the basketball,” Smith said. “We did a decent job there. We have to make sure that we have all eyes on Aari McDonald all the time. She’s a phenomenal basketball player. She makes them go.”

The odds are stacked in Arizona’s favor Friday. The Wildcats have not lost consecutive games since early January, and Arizona later revenged two of those losses to Oregon State and UCLA.

Oregon remains the only team with multiple wins against the Wildcats. Arizona would like to knock off the Ducks Saturday in the semifinals, but as any college basketball coach will tell you, there’s no looking ahead in March.

As for Cal, their message is simple: work harder than the other team.

“We can’t let them want it more than us,” Smith said. “We can’t let them be tougher than us. And I think we showed up in that department (on Thursday), and it allowed us to be able to get the win.”