The Cal Golden Bears win the Spokane Regional and advance to their first ever Final Four with a 65-62 overtime defeat of Georgia (Photo by Molly McClure)
The Cal Golden Bears win the Spokane Regional and advance to their first ever Final Four with a 65-62 overtime defeat of Georgia (Photo by Molly McClure)

Team effort propels Cal past Georgia

April 2, 2013 - 6:53am
California 65, Georgia 62 OT

SPOKANE, Wash. – With their band providing the drum-lined beat, the Cal women’s basketball team crowded around midcourt at the Spokane Arena and broke into a stirring rendition of their favorite song.

They’d just taken down fourth-seeded Georgia 65-62 in overtime — their second foray into OT in four tournament games (they defeated South Florida 82-78 in the second round) — and they couldn’t keep from chanting the lyrics from the Drake song that they’d tinkered and tailored and made their own, capturing this incredible journey and conveying it to the world.

Started from the bottom, now we’re here. Started from the bottom, now the whole Cal team here.

Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who’d just added her school-record fifth NCAA tournament victory (in just two seasons), took a deep breath before launching into an ESPN interview.

She’d taken a breath minutes before, during one of those on-court ESPN interviews during a media timeout midway through the second half.

Then, it might have been mild exasperation — she simply wanted to get back to her team and chart the latest strategy. Now, all was calm and well, and she fought back tears of unspeakable joy before she spoke to a nation of viewers tuning in.

Gottlieb finally lost it when junior Avigiel Cohen, eyes misting, told her “I love you; we’re going to the Final Four.”

This Cal team just keeps on making history in its own inimitable, unforgettable way.

The latest piece to this ever-morphing mosaic was a gritty, gutsy victory over the Lady Bulldogs, who led most of the game and totally vexed Cal with a 2-3 zone right out of the gate. (The Golden Bears started 1-of-19 from the field, and trailed by 10 points with just 6 minutes and 46 seconds to play in the game.)

“This was a team effort; this is how we win at Cal,” Gottlieb said. “These kids have so much fight in them, and I’m just … I’m so happy we’re still playing and I’m excited to go to New Orleans. I’m always going to appreciate this for being the first one.”

Despite the fantastic individual performances — none greater than senior guard Layshia Clarendon, who manages to be both scorer and calming influence without missing a step to her heavily syncopated game (she was named MVP of the regional after pouring in a game-high 25 points on 9-of-18 shooting in 45 minutes) — this was always going to require the entire team to pull through adversity.

Many of them have been forced to cope with unspeakable hardships their entire lives. On Monday night, they showed their fortitude once more, and triumphed. Once more, they wore down their opponent with relentless energy and a rollicking desire to just win, baby. It really couldn’t have been any other way.

“I knew this was possible,” said Gottlieb. “I believed more in this group than anyone ever, and this is still better than my wildest dreams.”

Golden Bears sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd was part of the lightning charge. She began the second half with two fouls and two turnovers in the first 54 seconds. Forced to sit for the next 9:42, she never sulked. In fact, she waved her towel so fiercely that at one point, it flew from her fingers and out onto the court.

When she re-entered play, she delivered three assists to just one turnover, and chipped in five key points. Afterward, she switched seamlessly between speechlessness and gratitude, like the rest of her team.

“I’m still stuck … when I got my third foul and sat down, I calmed myself down and I was just telling myself, ‘Just play basketball’,” Boyd said. “I’ve done this before, and I’m just on a bigger stage, but the nerves were getting the best of me during this game. I’m trying to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future, but I just had to focus in and play for my teammates and play for the people who helped me. I’m happy.”

There are few passers as talented as Boyd in college basketball, and there are few with as much confidence. That extends for this entire team, which has that incredibly rare ability to never consider themselves beaten. They know that they’ll make one of their trademark runs — it’s always just a matter of time.

Against the Lady Bulldogs, Boyd was the spitting image of that unshakeable belief, delivering the latest in a growing line of no-look assists off the bounce, before the defense ever knows what hit them.

“I guess it’s my gut, but I also believe in my post players, that they’re going to catch the ball,” Boyd said, almost struggling to convey what comes so naturally to her. “It’s just me trusting in them and them trusting in me, and that trust that we have, that connection that we’ve built over time, they believe in me to make that pass.”

Directing traffic atop the key against that stifling zone defense, she whipped a one-handed bullet for forward Talia Caldwell to lay in unimpeded with 3:52 left.

“Boyd can create and get people baskets, and I think it was huge when she was able to get Talia that layup and get a couple things going in transition,” said Gottlieb. “That was really critical for us. She just brings a different element. When she’s in, it’s like a lightning bolt speed, and I think it changes it up for the defense a little bit.”

Boyd had shot 5-of-12 from the free throw line in Saturday night’s win. In the next day’s press conference, she poked fun at herself before shifting into a deadpan gaze toward the assembled media. Hitting free throws — such a major talking point for this team, whose struggles from the line have been well-documented — came down to confidence.

So during practice that day, she took 20 minutes to focus entirely upon hitting shots from the line. “I was just shooting them and knocking ‘em down — even if I was missing ‘em, it was just finding a rhythm and going to the line with confidence,” Boyd said. “I couldn’t get down on myself, and put too much pressure, I was relaxed. It felt good coming off my hands.”

She went 4-of-6 from the line against Georgia, including two makes with 2:19 left in regulation. (Oh, and the drive that led to those shots drew the fifth foul on Lady Bulldogs star point guard Jasmine James. )

Boyd had roared into that fast break by plucking a rebound out of the air with one hand and, in one fluid motion, turning it into a tight crossover. Confidence personified.

“What I love about the sophomore class is that they’re fearless,” said Caldwell. “It helps all of us get settled. If we’re (the seniors) the glue, they also bring everything together in terms of our character and who we are.”

Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb cuts down the nets in Spokane, she continues to guide the Golden Bears into uncharted territory. (Photo by Molly McClure)

Boyd, who grew up minutes from the Cal campus in Berkeley, joined a host of Golden Bears who complemented the play of Clarendon, who once again rose to another level.

Sophomore Bears forward Reshanda Gray pulled down 11 rebounds (eight offensive) and chipped in eight points.

Senior guard Eliza Pierre combined feisty defense (she picked James clean above the three-point arc at one point) with rampant opportunism (she ended with four rebounds, including two key ones on the offensive glass.)

Junior guard Afure Jemerigbe provided 14 points (including two huge three-pointers), eight rebounds, one assist and one season-saving block on Georgia guard Khaalidah Miller with 52 seconds left in regulation and the Golden Bears nursing a two-point lead.

“All I could think of was just, ‘Do not foul,’” said Jemerigbe. “I don’t know where it came from. I just jumped up and blocked it.” Her performance earned her a spot on the all-tournament team.

Talia Caldwell, one of the seniors, had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in overtime to help seal the victory.

Afterward, she wouldn’t let the regional championship trophy out of her sight. “You keep attacking and say if you want the game bad enough, it’s going to go in,” Caldwell said. “It was just about us being mentally tough, and desire. Nothing is going to stop us from winning this game.”

Cal controlled the overtime period, and Boyd keyed the charge with a sensational steal and full-court lay up that nullified the momentum of Miller’s opening three-pointer. The Bears vaulted into a 9-0 run that helped seal the game.

Boyd and Clarendon room together on the road, and on Sunday afternoon they tuned into ESPN, where they heard women’s college basketball analyst Kara Lawson explain that Cal was one of four remaining teams on their side of the bracket with a chance to get to the national championship game.

That simple fact was met shock and awe. Then, quiet confidence. Fantasize. Visualize. Realize. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

Boyd wasn’t here for the rampant struggles these seniors faced in their first two years, but perhaps that gives her one of the most fitting perspectives. In any event, no one was dancing like the sophomore point guard when the final whistle had gone.

Started from the bottom, now we’re here.

“Before I was here, the team was really at the bottom,” said Boyd. “They weren’t doing so well … the WNIT … and now, we’re here. It’s a Final Four — this is something we all dreamed about, we all talked about since day one. It’s what we worked in the summer for. When we lost last year, to Notre Dame (in the NCAA tournament second round) … and now we’re going to the Final Four. And we’ve been preaching it, and now … it’s here.”