Cal wasn't sure what to expect from sophomore Gennifer Brandon this season after the 6-foot-2 forward sat out a year with a stress fracture in the shin.
It became clearer Saturday in a heartbreaking 77-75 defeat to No. 12 Ohio State in front of an announced crowd of 3,942 at Haas Pavilion. Brandon, who made the All-Pac-10 freshman team two years ago, is back.
She had an eye-popping 24 points and 24 rebounds for the Bears (8-3), who staged a furious rally at the end only to miss two putbacks as time ran out. Cal now has lost to three ranked teams by a combined six points, underscoring how close the Bears are to a major breakthrough.
Perhaps the first step is Brandon's dominance underneath the basket.
"I told her in the hallway when she learns how to jump she'll be good," Buckeyes coach Jim Foster said of Brandon. "It's ridiculous."
Cal out-rebounded Ohio State 44-28 but failed to take advantage of its spectacular low-post play because of horrendous free-throw shooting. The Bears missed 18 free throws while shooting 52.6 percent.
Center Talia Caldwell added 13 points and Afure Jemerigbe had 11 for the Bears. Ohio State (10-0) was led by guard Sammy Prahalis with 20 points, and Tayler Hill and Ashley Adams each had 15.
Brandon, a McDonald's high school All-American from Sylmar, brushed aside the praise Saturday, saying she just was following the game plan.
Cal wasn't so fortunate. Ohio State scored the first five points of the second half to build a double-digit lead that it held for about 15½ minutes. The Buckeyes enjoyed a 14-point cushion with 5:21 left when Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb asked her team to change the pace.
"We were trying everything ... to get them out of the rhythm because they were doing a nice job offensively," she said.
The tempo changed when the Bears employed a full-court press, forcing Ohio State to rush shots. Cal outscored the visitors 13-3 in the final 3:38 to close within two points. But Brandon missed a short shot with five seconds left, and Reshanda Gray and Jemerigbe each missed putbacks.
"Darn it, we almost had them," Brandon said.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/elliottalmond.