The University of California women’s basketball team didn’t expect anything less than a tug-of-war Monday night.
Earning its first trip to an NCAA Final Four couldn’t have been more difficult. And, in the end, more rewarding.
Behind Spokane Regional most valuable player Layshia Clarendon, seemingly the only Golden Bear able to make shots, second-seeded Cal rallied to top fourth-seeded Georgia 65-62 in overtime before 5,863 at the Arena.
Cal (32-2) moves on to New Orleans where it will meet the winner of tonight’s Tennessee vs. Louisville game.
“I knew this was possible; I believed more in this group than anyone ever and this is still better than my wildest dreams,” Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
The Bears, who will be the lone team in the Final Four making a first-time appearance, made 5 of 8 shots from the field in the 5-minute extra session – easily their hottest stretch of the game.
Clarendon made two baskets in OT, the first coming off an offensive rebound that pushed the Bears ahead 61-55 with 1:26 to go. She finished with a game-high 26 points on 9-of-18 shooting.
Her teammates, meanwhile, struggled. The other seven Bears combined to make just 15 of 52 attempts.
Cal had a chance to win in regulation. Two free throws from Brittany Boyd gave the Bears a 52-50 lead with 2:20 remaining.
The Bears wouldn’t score again. Georgia (28-7) forced OT when Anne Marie Armstrong rebounded her own miss and scored with 7 seconds to go.
Part of Cal’s shooting woes can be chalked up to Georgia’s 2-3 zone defense. The Lady Bulldogs wanted to take away dribble penetration and were concerned about the Bears’ quickness after Georgia played man-to-man in its first three tournament games.
It took the Bears a long time to adjust. They made just one of their first 18 shots.
Cal went nearly 7 minutes between its first and second baskets. Still, the Bears were very much in the game because their defense stymied Georgia.
Georgia coach Andy Landers believed he had no choice but to put his team in the 2-3 zone.
“We felt like it was very important to get back in transition, we felt like it was very important to keep dribble-drives and the ball out of the lane and to rebound the ball defensively,” Landers said. “And when we were doing those things well, we were in a good position.”
Cal’s biggest lead came in overtime when a Clarendon basket put the Bears ahead 61-55.
The Bulldogs’ biggest lead came when freshman Shacobia Barbee got a steal and was fouled going to the basket. She made both free throws for a 49-39 lead with 6:46 remaining.
Cal chipped away, using a 9-1 surge to pull within 50-48 with 3:31 to go.
A rebound basket by Talia Caldwell pulled the Bears even at 50-50 with 2:54 remaining.
Gottlieb is elated to take her team to New Orleans.
“I get to share them with the world,” she said.
Clarendon knew time was beginning to run out on the Bears when they found themselves trailing by 10 points.
She said she kept thinking, “we’re going to make our run. Get stops, get stops.”
Said Gottlieb: “This is how we win at Cal. Sometimes it’s gritty. I felt like our defense kept us in it.”
It was the second overtime win by Cal in four tournament games.
Clarendon was especially big in the second half, scoring 17 points on 6-of-12 shooting.
“I was smiling a lot in the second half even though we were losing,” Clarendon said.
Cal’s Afure Jemerigbe had 14 points and eight rebounds and Caldwell finished with 10 points and eight rebounds.
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