Cal heads to first Final Four
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Layshia Clarendon admitted, without a hint of self-consciousness, that there was a moment in the second half of Monday night's regional final when the Cal guard caught herself smiling. Even when she looked up at the scoreboard and the Bears were still losing.
"This is what you play basketball for, for these big moments," Clarendon said. "You have to really enjoy them and just relish them."
There might not be a cooler customer left in this NCAA tournament than the Cal senior with the sweet jumper. She is a patch of still water, an island of poise and surety.
Even her coach follows her lead.
"That kid is something special," Lindsay Gottlieb said. "To have a guard like Layshia, who can look at her teammates and say, 'It's going to be OK,' who handles the pressure she handles there's no question, you don't get this far without a player like that."
How far exactly? To New Orleans.
Cal advanced to the Final Four for the first time in school history, defeating fourth-seeded Georgia 65-62 in overtime Monday.
When the final horn sounded on a gritty, come-from-behind victory, the Bears cried, they screamed, they laughed, they jumped up and down, they did a little choreographed dance routine accompanied by the Cal Straw Hat Band.
And still, somehow they managed to look as though they knew they had it all along. That is because of Clarendon.
"That's kind of been my role," she said, "just being poised and solid the whole time."
The 6-foot guard from San Bernardino, Calif., finished Monday's game with 25 points, 17 of which came in the second half and overtime periods.
But Clarendon didn't make every big play. Sophomore Afure Jemerigbe finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, and contributed a huge blocked shot on Georgia freshman Shacobia Barbee with 52 seconds left in regulation and the Bears clinging to a two-point lead.
"[Jemerigbe] was the toughest I've ever seen her in my life," Gottlieb said.
Senior center Talia Caldwell scored eight of her 10 points after halftime, including two big baskets in the final 3:32 of regulation and another in overtime. Reshanda Gray came off the bench and pulled down a season-high 11 rebounds.
But Clarendon set the tone, one that told the Bears they were going to be fine, even when the scoreboard indicated otherwise.
"You can't let fear creep in," Clarendon said. "You can't think about 'We're going to lose, the season will be over.' Even in the huddle, we were like, 'We are not losing this game.'"
Jemerigbe called Clarendon "the glue."
"She's always poised. Our shots weren't falling, but she's always there to tell us, 'We got this, keep going, keep pushing, keep shooting,'" Jemerigbe said.
Clarendon held the Bears up in the first half when jitters got the best of some of them, the moment looking like it might swallow them up in the first 10 minutes. Cal was 1-of-18 from the floor to open the game. Some shots were wildly off-target, rushed and forced in the scramble to make something -- anything -- good happen.
Junior Gennifer Brandon, the Bears' über-athletic forward, was struggling badly. She finished 0-for-7 from the floor and sat out most of the second half and all of the overtime period while Caldwell and Gray did the work inside. It was only the second time all season Brandon was held scoreless.
In contrast, Clarendon was steady and patient early, hitting a pair of 3-pointers and scoring eight points in the first 20 minutes. Cal was down 26-21 at halftime, Gottlieb lighting into her team for the players' timid reaction to Georgia's 2-3 zone.
Clarendon forged them through a rough second half as the Lady Bulldogs built a 49-39 lead with 6:46 to go before Cal put together enough stops and shots to chip away at the lead.
"In my head, I'm just thinking, 'Keep it close, keep it close and we're going to strike, we're going to make our run,'" Clarendon said.
The Bears did just that, going on a 13-1 burst that ended when Georgia's Anne Marie Armstrong hit a shot with seven seconds left to force overtime at 52-52, Cal's second foray into bonus time in three games.
It worked out well against South Florida in the second round. And it worked out for the Bears again Monday because Clarendon was good for five more points, including a dagger of a pull-up jumper. She brought down the ball and then scored with 37.4 seconds to go, giving the Bears a 63-57 lead and enough space to nail down the win, even as Georgia made one more run at them.
Gottlieb acknowledged that her team tends to do things the hard way sometimes.
"This is us," Gottlieb said. "It is part of the reason we are good. I think the fact that we have been down before and on the court, these kids can look at each other and say, 'Let's get this done.' They are mentally and physically tough.
"Do we always play perfect? No."
Cal's journey moves now to New Orleans, the Bears becoming the first Pac-12 team not named Stanford to reach the national semifinals since Cheryl Miller and Southern California did it back in 1986.
Caldwell said her first thought after the game was the sudden panic that she might have miscounted, that Cal might have to play one more to get to New Orleans.
"I kept asking, 'Is this really the last game?'" Caldwell said.
Gottlieb, who took over this program two years ago, said she is well aware of how potentially rare an opportunity her team has earned.
"I knew this was possible," Gottlieb said. "I believed more in this group than anyone ever and this is still better than my wildest dreams."