- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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BERKELEY, Calif -- When the Cal Bears were hitting the dog days of finals week earlier this month, the players were spent from studying and taking exams. Practice was a little more uninspired one day than coach Lindsay Gottlieb would have liked.
And again the next day.
So Gottlieb, who never met an opportunity to analyze that she didn't like, whipped out the white board and wrote the names and the records of the teams they'd face in the next month and a half.
"It was one of those times where, as a coach, you are trying to snap them back in," Gottlieb said. "The next day they came out and they were terrific. I just wanted to remind them of why we do things the way we do."
The 19th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks were near the top of that to-do list, with a pair of All-Americans in Angel Goodrich and Carolyn Davis, a major conference pedigree, and a Sweet 16 appearance from last spring.
The Bears took whatever inspiration they gleaned from that daunting white board and brought it to the floor at Haas Pavilion on Friday night.
Playing at home for the first time since Nov. 24, Cal played a grind-it-out, punch-counterpunch match against Kansas, held the lead for most of the game and finished with an 88-79 win that ran their record to 9-1.
The Bears' start to the season matches the best opening 10 games in school history. And the home win over a ranked team is the first since Gottlieb took over before the 2011-12 season.
"From my perspective, I was conscious of this being a very big game and a very big opportunity," Gottlieb said. "Is it season-defining? No. But we built this schedule and we built this team and you hope for these moments."
Let's call it table-setting instead. Because what Gottlieb wrote down on that board that day does grab your attention.
Kansas (now 9-2). George Washington. Utah. Colorado. Stanford. Stanford. USC. UCLA. Colorado. Utah. Combined record, 46-15 -- and 10 of those losses belong to George Washington and USC.
It will no doubt be a stretch of games that will define the Bears and their prospects in February and March.
Gottlieb joked that she was listening to the espnW podcast this week with Beth Mowins and Debbie Antonelli and they were discussing the tough schedule that Stanford faced over the next few weeks and she laughed.
"We play that exact same schedule, except we get Stanford twice, and they are the No. 1 team in the country," Gottlieb said. "We just need to keep meeting the challenge in front of us."
Senior guard Layshia Clarendon, who finished the game with 28 points on 11-of-19 shooting from the floor, said the big-picture worries belong to her coach.
"I'm just thanking God we aren't in school; I just have to worry about sleeping and eating and basketball," Clarendon said. "I don't think about the game beyond, or beyond that. We all know what's coming. I'm just worrying about shootaround tomorrow."
Clarendon was one of five players in double figures, a balance that's become a hallmark for the Bears. Junior forward Gennifer Brandon rebounded from a tough first half (1 rebound, 3 points) to finish with 17 points and 10 rebounds. The Bears' post rotation of Brandon, Talia Caldwell and Reshanda Gray finished with a combined 42 points and 23 rebounds, countering Kansas' Davis, who finished with 16 points and just 29 minutes on the floor because of foul trouble. Cal outscored Kansas 64-30 in the paint and 25-8 with second-chance baskets.
Kansas led only in the early minutes, but stayed close. After pulling within 63-60 with 9:12 to go, Cal wore the Jayhawks down with their relentless athleticism and slowly pulled to arm's length.
"I just kept telling the girls to weather the storm; they are not going to go away," Clarendon said. "There was a point where I felt like there were maybe four or five minutes left in the game and there was 12. I knew it was going to be a long game. It's big that we kept the lead."
The Bears will want to use Friday night's win as a launching pad, no doubt.
"You have to use the ebb and the flow of the season to your advantage," Gottlieb said. "You set up the schedule to make sure you are ready for everything."
Because everything is about to arrive on Cal's doorstep.