Cal wins to match best 22-game start in school history

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Ashley Walker takes pride in her team's ability not to look past the game at hand.

Yet, when No. 21 California took a big lead over UC Riverside early in the second half, Walker admits that the Golden Bears might have started peeking ahead to a weekend showdown with archrival Stanford.

Walker made sure that transgression didn't cost the Bears a game, picking up two steals and hitting two key free throws in the final 1:08 to help Cal hold off the Highlanders 58-51 Wednesday night.

"I do think when we got into the game and got up 14, we were kind of like, 'Whew!'" Walker said. "I didn't even realize when the score changed. I just looked up and we were only up two. We had a little lapse and we can't have that."

Walker finished with 13 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals to help the Bears (17-5, 7-4 Pacific-10) match the 1983-84 team for the best record in school history after 22 games and win their 24th straight non-conference home game.

Devanei Hampton added 14 points and Natasha Vital had a career-high 13, but the Bears know they need to be much sharper if they want to end a 14-game losing streak to Stanford on Sunday.

The eighth-ranked Cardinal are undefeated in the Pac-10 this season and have dominated the Bay Area rivalry. Cal hasn't beaten the Cardinal since Feb. 16, 2001, including a 69-44 home loss on Jan. 6.

"We have to do a lot of different things," Walker said. "We want to win first of all. We have to work on the defensive end and fix the things we did wrong the first time we faced them."

The Golden Bears have won six of seven since the loss to Stanford but struggled at times in the rare midweek non-conference game in the middle of the Pac-10 season.

Coach Joanne Boyle said the timing of this game was not ideal, but it was necessitated when the NCAA extended the regular season to 29 games. One benefit of the game was that Riverside played a similar defensive style to Stanford, sagging down on Cal's post players.

The strategy worked as Cal shot 40 percent for the game and 31 percent in the second half. The Bears were only 3-for-11 from 3-point range, failing to make Riverside pay for leaving Cal's guards open.

"Riverside played us like Stanford does," Boyle said. "They totally slack off, they double and triple our posts and they give our guards wide-open shots. You can only run so many things. You have to be able to knock down shots."

Amber Cox scored 13 points to lead the Highlanders (12-9, 6-1), the Big West leaders who went to the NCAA Tournament last season. Seyram Gbewonyo added 11 points and Roney Friend had 10.

Lauren Greif's 3-pointer early in the second half started an 11-2 run that helped the Bears open a 46-32 lead. Hampton and Walker each had four points during the spurt that helped Cal overcome a lackluster first half.

UC Riverside hung tough and cut the lead to four points on Cox's 3-pointer with 6:20 remaining. Friend's basket inside cut it to 52-50 before Hampton's two free throws with 3:54 remaining extended the lead back to four.

Walker then had a steal with just over a minute left and Cal protecting a three-point lead. Walker made two free throws on the other end to extend the lead to 56-51 with 40.5 seconds remaining.

Hampton had a steal on the Highlanders' next possession and Cal ran the clock down to 11.5 seconds before UC Riverside committed a foul. Keanna Levy hit two free throws to put the game out of reach.

"I felt like it was a hard-fought game," UC Riverside coach John Margaritis said. "Going down the stretch we had some opportunities but did not capitalize."

Cal got off to a sluggish start, going scoreless for 5:33 span before a switch to a full-court press helped spark an 12-2 run to put the Bears on top 21-12. The Bears finished with nine steals, including five by Walker as the Highlanders struggled to get the ball over half court at times.

"We just couldn't make the passes or catch the ball," Cox said.

Cal led 31-25 at the break and the advantage could have been bigger for the Bears, who missed five of eight free throws, including the front end of a one-and-one.