SPOKANE, Wash. - Tied 26-26 with sixth-seeded LSU at halftime of Saturday night’s Sweet 16 game at the Spokane Arena, Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb kept her locker room speech succinct.
The Golden Bears had to play to their strengths, which had propelled them to a 30-3 record and No. 2 seed in the tournament.
That meant playing fast, pushing the tempo, locking in on defense, sharing the basketball and being versatile — exactly the staples that Gottlieb had outlined during Friday’s press conference.
"Sometimes this team sets its expectations so high that it can get ahead of itself," Gottlieb said. So she told her players to concentrate on simple things — setting good screens, finishing plays, crashing the offensive glass. If they did those things, everything else would fall into place.
Cal obliged, and gradually imposed its will on the short-handed Lady Tigers, who were coming off a sensational second-round upset win over Penn State.
The Bears notched 12 steals. Five players had at least two offensive rebounds, and redshirt junior forward Gennifer Brandon ended with a game-high 13 boards, along with 17 points.
After pulling away to a 73-63 victory, the Bears are now headed to the first Elite Eight in program history, yet another first in a season that has been chock-full of them.
As she made her way to an on-court post-game interview, fresh off her fourth tournament victory in just two seasons, Gottlieb uttered a telling “Phew.”
Once the interview wrapped, she turned toward the band of Cal supporters amassed just behind the team bench and unleashed a fist pump.
“I think we were us in the second half,” said Gottlieb. “We were ‘Cal’. I challenged these guys to play faster, to do the things we do well and to kind of wear [LSU] down. I’m just so incredibly proud of this group.”
The Bears held LSU to 37.8 percent shooting in the second half, and thoroughly frustrated All-SEC forward Theresa Plaisance, who finished 5-of-18 from the field. Plaisance finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, but her influence was muted during the second half. She was one of five Tigers to finish with three turnovers.
No one better embodied the spirit and drive of this remarkable team — this remarkable Cal run — than senior Layshia Clarendon, who once again provided a seemingly endless series of key plays on both ends of the court. Clarendon finished with a game-high 19 points, and chipped in four assists and three rebounds.
“There’s a lot of things you can point to why this has been a great season, but none bigger than Layshia,” said Gottlieb. “She has been the All-American presence all year. Her continual ability to take and make the big shot, have the ball in her hand and pass and distribute or make a big play. She has really elevated her game.”
Clarendon knew what to expect from the Lady Tigers — after watching film, she was prepared to face a medley of defensive sets predicated upon stifling her offensive production.
She knew that LSU senior guard Adrienne Webb would “get in her shorts,” just as she’d done on Tuesday night against Penn State star guard Maggie Lucas, when Webb limited the Big 10 Player of the Year to nine points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The key was to remain poised, even as Clarendon was bounced around at times as if she’d entered a vortex. She locked in on defense, where she guarded Webb on multiple occasions.
After pouring in a career-high 29 points against Penn State, Webb managed just 15 points against the Clarendon-led defensive attack. Webb did not hit her first three-pointer (which was also the team’s first) until 51 seconds remained in regulation.
Helping off her man, her quick hands flying through passing lanes and batting dribbles, Clarendon ended with six steals, tying Cal’s school record in an NCAA tournament game. The defense keyed a slew of fast breaks, where Cal excels.
“In the second half, when our defense got stops, we broke it up a little bit and got out in transition,” Clarendon said. “It’s kind of hard to face guard when you’re bringing the ball down and running off of screens.”
Sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd spearheaded the Bears’ fast-paced attack. Gottlieb took the Berkeley native aside in the locker room and told Boyd that she needed to play faster — she needed to push the tempo.
“It was just Coach G’s message about being ourselves out there on the court, and playing Cal basketball, running up and down the floor, getting rebounds, getting defensive stops and just executing at all times,” Boyd said. “I think that got through to us at halftime.”
Responding with a poise and savvy that belied her years, Boyd finished with 14 points, three rebounds, seven assists (to just three turnovers), and a whole lot of patience while dealing with frequent bumps, prods and nudges throughout.
Boyd’s been playing some of her best basketball of the season of late. In the first two games of the NCAA tournament, against Fresno State and South Florida, she averaged 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.5 assists while committing just five turnovers.
She set the tone for grit and hustle early, ripping a ball away from 6’4” Tigers center Derreyal Youngblood, to whom she ceded seven inches of height. Boyd showed off her hugely impressive sense of distribution, dropping a collage of passes for teammates to score — in some cases, before the defender even knew what was coming.
“She’s been playing ridiculously amazing these last few games and in the tournament,” Clarendon said. “She’s really been leading us. She’s come such a long way. We trust her with the ball. She’s an awesome point guard, and she’s just a sophomore. She gets out in the open court like no one can in the country.”
With 5:21 left in the game, the two guards combined for a fantastic offensive sequence. Clarendon had been sent crashing to the floor after vaulting into the LSU key on another dribbling drive.
Clarendon corralled the ball before it could scuttle away and, still sprawled and yelling incredulously at the no-call, punched a pass to a wide open Boyd in the left corner. Swish. 58-46.
“Just seeing how hard [Layshia] is working, to make something happen for our team — it only motivates our team like, ‘Let’s go’ — I want to be there to help her,” said Boyd. “We struggle together, now let’s be happy together. We got this together, and just, you know, live in the moment and be happy for where we’re at right now.”
Four of those field goals came in the second half, when Clarendon’s syncopated, mesmeric ability to free herself up for shots was on full display. She finished 5-of-13 in the game — including 4-of-7 in the second half.
“In the second half, she got herself to the foul line,” said LSU head coach Nikki Caldwell. “I thought that was the difference. If you told me that Clarendon’s only going to make five baskets, that’s a good night for anybody defensively.”
Clarendon sank 9-of-12 free throws, adding to the Bears’ combined 26-of-41 performance from the stripe. Long considered a weakness for this team, Cal hit their foul shots when they needed to.
After rattling off an 8-0 run (while holding LSU to 0-of-6 shooting) in the final minutes of the game, Cal compounded the burst with a spell of 8-of-10 shooting from the line. Clarendon hit eight of her last 10 from the stripe.
“Credit to all of us for just stepping up, being confident Division 1 players and just knocking our free throws down,” said Clarendon.
Clarendon said that Gottlieb has looked around the locker room at times this season and told the Bears that they have every single piece they need. If they play Cal basketball, then they have a chance to do something very special.
“We’re having so much fun in this awesome experience, and we’re not ready to stop playing yet,” said Clarendon. “It’s more of a motivating factor. We’ve broken a lot of records this season, and we made history — Cal history.”
After the game, after her series of interviews, Gottlieb entered the Bears’ locker room just as Boyd’s own interview was winding down. In a perfect symmetry with her halftime speech, as Gottlieb passed by her sophomore point guard, she just couldn’t resist messing Boyd’s hair.
It’s par for the course, as far as this team — this family — is concerned. Watch Boyd hit the deck with seconds to go in the game, and key free throws on tap. Before she toes the line, she receives four high-fives from each of her teammates that is on the court. The ones on the sideline yell encouragement.
Watch Clarendon toe the free throw line herself before noticing that some moisture has collected there. Before she can shuffle her shoes about the spot, squeaking the wood into an acceptable condition, her teammates rush over to join her in the effort.
This team plays loose, this team plays together, this team knows how to win games. It has resulted in the first trip to the Elite Eight in program history.