California dreamin’, indeed.
The Cal women’s basketball team finally found the fast lane Saturday night, pulling away from LSU in the final minutes and cruising into the first Elite Eight appearance in school history.
When their shots weren’t falling for most of the game, the Golden Bears turned up the defensive pressure and defeated the Tigers 73-63 in the NCAA tournament game at the Arena.
In what is already the most successful season in school history, the second-seeded Bears are one win away from an appearance in the Final Four. A win over fourth-seeded Georgia on Monday night would send Cal (31-3) to New Orleans next weekend.
“I’m a little speechless,” Cal guard Layshia Clarendon said after the game. “I think Lindsay (coach Lindsay Gottlieb) knew we were capable of this.”
The Bears finally hit the gas pedal against an LSU team that simply didn’t have enough Tigers in the tank in the last 8 minutes. Even with the return of guard Jeanne Kenney, LSU fielded just eight players.
Still, the sixth-seeded Lady Tigers (22-12) trailed by only five points with 8:20 to play, but finally were undone by a deeper Cal team that finally found its shooting touch.
Leading 50-45 with 8:41 to play, the Bears outscored LSU 12-1 over the next 4 minutes to take a 62-46 lead and were never threatened in the final minutes. The Bears put the game away at the foul line, hitting 26 of 41 – all but nine of those attempts coming in the second half.
“We’re capable, we just need to step up and hit the free throws,” Clarendon said. “Credit to all of us for hitting the free throws.”
After shooting 29 percent in the first half, the Bears were 50 percent (12 for 24) in the second. Clarendon had only two points at halftime, but finished with a game-high 19.
The Bears’ Gennifer Brandon added 17 and Brittany Boyd had 14, including a 3-pointer with 5:29 left that put the Bears ahead 56-48.
But the key was an aggressive defense that forced 11 second-half turnovers. The Bears had 12 steals compared with three for LSU.
“I looked them in the eye and said we just need to be better at what we do,” Gottlieb said. “We challenged them to play faster.”
It wasn’t easy.
The Bears jumped out to an 11-6 lead – the biggest lead for either team until late in the game – on a layup by Brittany Boyd just 4 minutes into the game. But the Bears couldn’t find their range the rest of the half; Cal was 10 for 34 from the field and just 1 for 8 from 3-point range.
LSU was scarcely better in the first half, going 12 for 30 and missing all three attempts from long range.
Otherwise, the Lady Tigers gave as good as they got in the first half, matching the Bears’ pace and beating their intensity. Shanece McKinney swatted away five Cal shots in the first half alone, and matched teammate Theresa Plaisance with five rebounds in the first 20 minutes.
The Tigers also stayed fresh. Seven minutes into the game, LSU coach Nikki Caldwell subbed en masse, giving a 2-minute rest to every starter except Plaisance.
After watching LSU rally for a 26-26 halftime tie, Cal outscored the Tigers 8-2 to start the second half on steals by Clarendon and Boyd.
But LSU came back with two steals of its own, tying the game at 34 on McKinney’s layup with 14:28 left.
LSU got a boost with the return of Kenney, who suffered a head injury after colliding with teammate Adrienne Webb on an inbounds play in the second half of the Lady Tigers’ first-round victory against No. 11 seed Wisconsin-Green Bay. Kenney had six points and four assists.