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SALT LAKE CITY – California knew its opening stretch of Pac-12 games was going to be tough.
Friday night was an indication as the No. 7 Golden Bears survived a furious Utah rally to hold on for a 55-50 victory in the teams' conference opener.
"We struggled to score in the second half and honestly that's a concern, but I knew it was going to be a tight game," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "I like the way we responded down the stretch."
After Utah pulled within four points with 2:34 remaining on Michelle Plouffe's pull-up jumper, the Bears forced the Utes into a pair of misses.
Cal then made 8 of 10 free throws down the stretch to seal the win.
The Utes' missed opportunities early in the second half were critical after they held Cal scoreless over the first six minutes but managed just six points of their own.
"We stopped them time after time," Utah coach Anthony Levrets said. "With a team that's athletic, you have to make sure you have good long possessions and make them guard you and hope that you can make a few. We missed some easy ones, but Cal gets a lot of credit. They are a very talented athletic group."
Layshia Clerendon led Cal with 18 points and Afure Jemerigbe had 13, including 11 in the first half when she hit 5 of 6 shots.
"We feel like we're a team that has five threats to score at any time,"Gottlieb said. "Afure really just took what was there. Tonight they focused on loading the paint to stop penetration by Brittany Boyd and our post players. . She's a big-time guard and to have her be able to step up when we needed was important."
In the second half, the key were back-to-back 3-pointers by Clerendon and Boyd followed by Gennifer Brandon's short baseline jumper that bumped Cal's lead to 13 and forced the Utes into rally mode.
Plouffe scored 16 points to lead Utah (9-3, 0-1), which trailed by 13 points with 6:10 remaining before pulling within three in the closing seconds. Taryn Wicijowski's jumper with 2 seconds left cut the Utes' deficit to 53-50, but Jemerigbe was fouled and sank both free throws to seal the win.
Iwalani Rodrigues and Wicijowski had 11 points apiece for Utah.
Boyd added 11 points to help the Golden Bears (11-1, 1-0) get the program's 600th victory and gain momentum heading into Sunday's game at No. 20 Colorado.
After that, they face No. 4 Stanford at home Tuesday followed by a rematch with the Cardinal in Palo Alto the following Sunday. After a home game against USC, they face No. 16 UCLA and a second round of games against Colorado and Utah.
The Bears already are off to their best start in program history, their only loss coming at No. 4 Duke on Dec. 2. They have quality wins over Georgetown and Kansas.
And now they have won their conference opener for the first time since 2008-09 — the year they reached the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
"We have a pretty complete team," Gottlieb said. "We can score in the paint, on the perimeter. What we don't want to go through are lulls."
Utah, meanwhile, knows it must find a way to score more, and get production from others besides Plouffe, a member of Canada's 2012 Olympic team.
Plouffe spent the final 10 minutes of the first half in foul trouble. During that time, Cal bumped its lead from one point to 12.
"No question we got in a good flow when she was out,"Gottlieb said. "I don't think that was a coincidence. She's a big part of what they do "
Cal held a 24-16 edge on points in the paint and 8-2 advantage on second-chance points. Utah shot just 36 percent in the game but held Cal to 28.6 percent in the second half.
"We make a few more shots tonight, I think we win this game," Levrets said.