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BERKELEY, Calif. -- Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb walked into the locker room behind her team and, despite Sunday's loss, gave athletic director Sandy Barbour the usual high-five on the way through the door.
"And I felt better doing it than I did Friday night," Gottlieb said.
On Friday, the ninth-ranked Bears opened the season with a 70-51 victory over Long Beach State. Two days later at Haas Pavilion, the Bears fell to second-ranked Duke 70-58.
Better clearly is in the eye of the beholder. In Gottlieb's eyes, the disappointment of losing is easily tempered by the value of this experience.
For a Bears team that unfurled its NCAA Final Four banner in front of an appreciative crowd of more than 10,000 on Sunday, opening the season against the No. 2-ranked team in the country on national television is exactly where it wants to be.
|Chelsea Gray, in her first game since a season-ending injury last February, scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting.|
Beating the talented Blue Devils would have been great -- really great -- but not necessary for this opportunity to have value.
"I told the kids this week, 'This is big-girl basketball,'" Gottlieb said. "There are not a lot of really experienced, talented teams like this who will make you pay every time you make a mistake. This was a chance for us to go against a team playing at the highest level."
For Duke, an experienced, hungry team with national championship aspirations, making the trip west to face a team of Cal's caliber in the season opener was a risk-reward proposition. It's one that not every elite team in the country is willing to undertake. Looking at the mismatched box scores of the season's first weekend tells you that.
Instead of scheduling to guarantee a win, there was a decent chance that the Blue Devils were going to fly 3,000 miles to open their season with a loss.
And Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie says simply, "That's fine."
"It happens sometimes," McCallie said. "We learn. It's a process. It's not outcome-driven, it's really not. We are just trying to be better."
McCallie said she learned a lesson from last season, when things might have been just a tad too easy for her team at times. Hard is better for a team that has come up one win short of the Final Four in each of the past four seasons.
"The only way to grow is to challenge ourselves," McCallie said. "We have to be put in tough situations. Last year, there were a lot of games for us that were not as challenging. We won too many games by too much."
An average of 20.6 points per game, to be precise.
And in at least one instance, lost one game by way too much, falling to Connecticut 79-49. You have to have experience something difficult to be ready for when things get difficult, goes the theory.
Gottlieb and McCallie are on the same page there. And the two teams did that for one another on Sunday, despite Duke's position in the driver's seat for much of the game.
Cal struggled with Duke's matchup zone, shooting just 32.3 percent from the floor and playing from behind much of the way. Duke won the rebounding margin 46-39, a rare team to beat Cal on the offensive glass, 18-16.
|Alexis Jones and Duke outrebounded Cal 46-39.|
And the Bears struggled to defend local girl Chelsea Gray, who finished the game with 22 points and five assists in front of a large contingent of family and friends who made the trip from the San Joaquin Valley. Gray was playing in a game for the first time since she suffered a dislocated knee cap and torn ligament in her knee last February. She missed the final 11 games of the 2012-13 season, including the Blue Devils' run to the Elite Eight, where they lost to Notre Dame.
Duke got a healthy dose of the Bears' athleticism and quickness, as well as Cal's desire to push the ball quickly up the floor. And the Blue Devils, thanks to a strong second-half effort by Tricia Liston, who scored 13 of her 15 points after the break, held off the Bears as they stayed within striking distance.
Afure Jemerigbe -- Gray's teammate at St. Mary's High in nearby Stockton, Calif. -- led Cal with 16 points. Point guard Brittany Boyd added 13 points and junior forward Reshanda Gray had 10. Freshman Courtney Range pulled down 10 rebounds and learned invaluable lessons against the likes of Duke's Elizabeth Williams, who struggled on the offensive end to finish with five points but 11 rebounds.
Duke is the team with five returning starters. Cal played with three new starters on Sunday.
"We are playing with a new team, with new roles and new freshmen," Jemerigbe said. "We need the experience of playing a team like this. We are going to watch the film and we are going to nitpick and figure out what we need to do better."
Cal will have other opportunities this season to go against the best in the country. The Bears have a Dec. 22 date with Connecticut in Madison Square Garden and at least two games against No. 4 Stanford coming in the Pac-12 schedule. Prime opportunities all. And they will be better prepared for them because of this one.
"I'm proud that we are playing at the level we are at now," said Gottlieb, seven months after her team reached the national semifinals for the first time. "This experience can and will make us better."