- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SPOKANE, Wash. -- Ask Andy Landers about his senior class and then get ready. He's about to start telling the story about a program that wasn't what it once was and how one of the game's legendary coaches planned to get it back.
"Let's set the stage," Landers says, as he begins the tale of a senior class, five kids who came into his program four years ago and needed a history lesson. So Landers gave it to them.
"High school kids don't really know a lot about what they are signing up for," Landers said. "They don't understand that it's a big-time commitment if you are going to win, if you are going to be the best you can be. So the first thing we wanted to do was educate them."
He pulled out the team media guides, handed them out and gave the players assignments. And then at 8 a.m., in his office every morning, they would have exams.
What's our record against this team? What's our record against a particular team inside the conference? What's our longest win streak? Is there a team in the conference that hasn't beaten us? Who has beaten Tennessee more than any other school in the league?
"All of a sudden after they start answering these questions, they realize," Landers said. "And all of a sudden you could tell that they were starting to understand what they had signed up for."
They had signed up to revive Georgia basketball, to bring a program that has one of the most storied histories in women's basketball -- Olympians, All-Americans, SEC Championships, Final Fours, national championship games -- back to elite life.
"At first, I thought, this is a little different," senior post Anne Marie Anderson said. "And then you understand. There was a little bit of pressure. Because we are not just doing this for this team, but for the whole program and for Coach Landers."
The hardest assignment Landers gave his players was to dig through the media guide and find the one thing that Georgia hadn't done.
"That's win a national championship. That's what you signed up for," Landers said.
Point guard Jasmine James feels like she got it out of the gate. She remembered watching twins Coco and Kelly Miller, who played for the Bulldogs in the late 1990s, when she was a kid. She knew Georgia basketball history. That's why she came to Athens.
"We were coming to put Georgia in a place to compete for a championship again," James said. "Georgia basketball has a lot of pride with it and a lot of history behind it. He wanted to get that into our heads."
It didn't happen overnight. The Bulldogs and this class made three straight trips to the Sweet 16 before heading home. This year, led by James, Armstrong and Jasmine Hassell, they are as close to the high bar they read about in those media guides as ever.
Monday night, in Spokane Arena, Georgia and Landers will find themselves one step from the Final Four for the first time since 2004, when most of the oldest players on the team were still in elementary school. They will be facing a Cal team that has its own senior story, which isn't about reviving a tradition, but establishing one.
Cal coach Linsday Gottlieb's tale is a little different from Landers'. She got to her seniors halfway through their career. When she showed up, they were pulling together and making their own decisions about which direction the program was headed.
Her group of soon-to-be juniors, led by Layshia Clarendon, Eliza Pierre and Talia Caldwell, had been playing major minutes since the moment they arrived at Cal.
They won the WNIT in their freshman season and finished a disappointing sixth in the Pac-10 the next year. And coach Joanne Boyle was heading to Virginia.
Originally a group of seven players, who came in together as the nation's top recruiting class, they were down to four -- three of them active.
Clarendon, Pierre and Caldwell were playing. Gennifer Brandon, who had come in with them, missed the 2010-11 season with a stress fracture in her lower leg. Tierra Rogers had collapsed in practice and was diagnosed with a heart condition that ended her playing career, but not her connection to the team. Two other players transferred.
This group had been through a lot together already. Rogers' ordeal -- which included the murder of her father during her senior season of high school at halftime of one of her games -- pulled them close. Brandon's difficult family background -- she and her siblings were often homeless after her father was killed in 1997 and her mother battled alcoholism -- as well as the murder of Pierre's brother in August 2011, tugged the bonds even tighter.
Gottlieb's arrival in the spring of 2011 was going to be a turning point for these players, one way or the other.
"I think that group, right then, could have gone a number of different ways, and they said, we are going to stick together," Gottlieb said. "Their individual stories are unbelievable. And some of them have had to go through things that you should never have to go through, especially as a young person. But they haven't just survived, they have thrived."
Because they have each other.
"They are pretty much the glue that makes this team stick," Brandon said of her former classmates.
Clarendon, the team's leading scorer and an All-American candidate, said the team is "rooted in gratitude because of our first couple of years' experience."
"We can't take this opportunity for granted because we have never been here before," Clarendon said. "This year, going into the tournament, we feel like we have every piece we need. It's a really comfortable position to be in, but humbling at the same time because we have never been here."
And so Monday's Spokane Regional final comes down to two teams, rooted in senior leadership, neither of whom have played in a game of this magnitude.
One group is going to get a happy ending. The other is merely closing the book, no doubt feeling it was unfinished.
"It's going to be a hunger for both teams. We aren't ready to stop," said Cal senior forward Talia Caldwell.
19dBonnie D. Ford