California capitalizes on mistakes to improve on best start in school history

BERKELEY, Calif. -- California coach Joanne Boyle expects her team to live up to its No. 3 ranking, even if it is just a number.

California had problems with communication and defense against Princeton on Saturday, and although the Bears came away with a 75-53 win in the first round of the Collier's International Classic, Boyle was hardly in a festive mood.

"It really is a number because it is what people think of you," Boyle said. "A game like this, you want to see a team come out from start to finish and just dominate. Where we didn't take care of business is that we didn't do that."

Ashley Walker shook off a sluggish start to score 21 points and Natasha Vital added 12 points to lead the Bears.

Walker, who entered averaging 22.3 points, struggled with her shot early but scored Cal's first three baskets in the second half. The Bears (7-0) steadily pulled away and took advantage of Princeton's mistake-prone offense to improve on the best start in school history.

Four of Cal's wins have been by 22 points or more while the other three have been by 14 points apiece, including a 66-52 victory over then-No. 3 Rutgers on Nov. 21. That enabled the Bears to garner their highest ranking in the AP poll, a spot they've held two weeks.

After seeing Princeton shoot 61.9 percent in the second half, Boyle is more concerned about the Bears' defense and the lack of focus than their ranking.

"This is where you want to see your team's growth, a game like this," Boyle said. "That's what's disappointing. It's just that we're better than what we showed tonight. I know my team and I know what we're capable of. We did not come out as though we had a target on our back."

Whitney Downs scored a career-high 24 points and had six rebounds for the Tigers (3-3), but she was the lone Princeton player in double figures.

"We didn't let them go on a 10-point run and then extend it to 20. We fought right back," Downs said. "That's the thing our team struggled with last year, stopping other team's runs, so I think that showed maturity and more toughness."

Vital had four 3-pointers for Cal, including a buzzer-beater from nearly halfcourt in the first half. Alexis Gray-Lawson added 12 points and 10 assists for Cal, which will play either No. 22 TCU or St. Louis for the championship.

Walker had eight points and five rebounds in the first half but was far from sharp. Her first shot was an airball and she missed badly on her first free throw attempt, ending a streak of 16 straight without a miss. The Bears' leading scorer also had a pair of turnovers, getting stripped twice in the paint.

The rest of the Bears were equally sluggish early on and didn't start pulling away from the Tigers until midway through the first half. Vital's 3-pointer sparked a 12-2 run to pull Cal ahead 20-10, and Devanei Hampton later sank a pair of free throws to start a 7-0 run.

Princeton tried to keep it close and successfully broke Cal's full-court press to pull within seven points late in the first half. But Vital added her second trey of the half with four minutes left to put the Bears ahead by 13, then made her third 3-pointer from just inside the halfcourt line as the buzzer sounded, giving Cal a 39-22 lead at the break.

"The communication wasn't there," Vital said of Cal's defense. "I guess we just weren't focused. We came out with the press and they just got too many wide open shots. That's on us."

Walker found her rhythm in the second half and made her first three shots to help Cal build a 45-28 lead. Walker went 6-for-6 in the second half and scored 13 points for the Bears, who slowly pulled away from the pesky but overmatched Tigers.

"We were a little slow," Walker said. "We did a lot of pressing early on ... and they kind of figured it out. That's when (Downs) got a lot of open looks and got hot. Then our defense kind of depleted from there."

Downs, whose previous career-best was 19 set last season, tried to keep Princeton close. The senior guard made nine of 13 shots in the second half, including a 3-pointer that pulled the Tigers within 58-46 with 7:21 left.

Vital answered with another 3-pointer for Cal and the Bears never looked back, pulling ahead 72-51 with three minutes remaining on Walker's short basket inside the paint.