Brittany Boyd and Talia Caldwell helped No. 8 Cal overcome a noisy gym and some lousy shooting.
Boyd scored 18 points and Caldwell added 16 to help beat Northwestern 71-65 Monday, sending the Wildcats to their fourth straight loss.
"This was a game we can take a lot away from," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "I really credit Northwestern coming off some injuries and some rough games. Their spirit was up, they executed, they played well and the crowd was phenomenal."
The game, which started at 11 in the morning, was played in front of 4,958 fans, largely from Chicago area schools, and the vocal crowd made it difficult at times for the Golden Bears.
"This is exactly why you schedule games like this," Gottlieb said. "To be on the road in a tournament-like atmosphere and have to respond to adversity."
Gennifer Brandon's three-point play with 3:04 left put Cal (8-1) ahead for good. The Golden Bears made 26 for 64 (39.1 percent) from the field.
Brandon had 11 points and 10 rebounds and Layshia Clarendon scored 11 for Cal.
"We had so many opportunities to win this game and Cal made some big plays in the last three minutes," Wildcats coach Joe McKeown said. "I just loved our effort and intensity but we had a few breakdowns here and there that they exposed.
Karly Roser scored 16 points and Dannielle Diamant had 15 points and 12 rebounds for Northwestern (6-4). Lauren Douglas added 14 for the Wildcats in their fourth straight loss.
"I don't think that the early start affected us at all," Gottlieb said. "I thought our energy level was great. More than anything, I credit Northwestern. They came out and played like they wanted to beat a Top 10 team."
The Golden Bears opened the second half with eight missed shots missed while the Wildcats moved to a 38-33 lead four minutes in after Roser drove the lane for a basket.
Northwestern lost despite going 26 of 33 from the free throw line.
Northwestern opened the season with six straight wins, but have now lost four straight and have been without starters Maggie Lyon and key reserve Kate Popovec.
Diamant, meanwhile, just returned to practice last week after missing two weeks with an injury. Her grandfather, the retired former UNLV and Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian, was on hand to watch.