Women’s basketball: Brandon’s surprise return sparks No. 9 Bears in season opening win

The No. 9 Cal women’s basketball team got an unexpected boost in its season opener Friday night with the return of star forward Gennifer Brandon.

Exactly three months after undergoing surgery to have a rod put in her right lower leg, the senior forward came off the bench to contribute to the Bears’ 70-51 win over Long Beach State.

“Just being out here today is a surprise,” Brandon said. “I’m still trying to embrace it. It’s a beautiful thing.”

The Bears, in their first game since reaching the Final Four last season for the first time, will be more severely tested Sunday when they face No. 3 Duke at Haas Pavilion.

Brandon, a first-team all-Pac-12 pick a year ago, had surgery Aug. 8 to remedy a recurring stress fracture. At the time, coach Lindsay Gottlieb was told the recovery time would range from two to four months.

But Brandon progressed quickly and on Wednesday was medically cleared to play. She had six points, two rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 13 minutes.

“She’s my superhuman bionic child,” said Gottlieb, who had no specific expectations for what Brandon might do in the game.

“I wanted to see Genn be happy, run fast, jump high, get comfortable on the floor. Just focus on simple things,” Gottlieb said.

Brandon said she was a bit apprehensive beforehand but felt great.

Long Beach State coach Jody Wynn was not expecting to see Brandon, who averaged 12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds last season.

“I’ve always referred to Genn Brandon as a pogo stick,” Wynn said. “She’s an unbelievable leaper, plays with high energy, gets to the ball when no one else has a chance. Not too many women in the country have that kind of athleticism.”

Guard Afure Jemerigbe led the Beas with 13 points and Rashanda Gray added 10 points and 11 rebounds. Point guard Brittany Boyd, battling early foul trouble, had six points, seven rebounds and four steals, but shot just 1 for 7.

The Bears got terrific debut performances from two freshmen.

Guard Mercedes Jefflo had nine points and seven steals and forward Courtney Range contributed nine points and 14 rebounds.

The Bears led 27-18 at halftime, despite shooting 29 percent from the field and turning the ball over 12 times. The 49ers converted just 18 percent of their first-half shots.

Cal gradually pulled away in the second half, pushing its lead to as many as 22 points on two occasions. The Bears shot 41 percent in the second half and had just three more turnovers.

Jeff Faraudo