- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- Brittany Boyd arrived at Cal a year and a half ago knowing how to play at one speed -- on your mark, get set, go -- every outlet pass turning into a race to the rim on the other end of the floor.
Races, mind you, that she would usually win because she is the fastest player on the floor.
"She gets the ball, and you just have to book it down to the other end," junior forward Gennifer Brandon said. "I just tried to stay close to her in case she wants to dish it."
Boyd, the Bears sophomore point guard, set the pace for a Cal transition game that will have to be clicking against Louisville on Sunday night in the NCAA Final Four (ESPN, 6:30 p.m. ET) if the Bears want a shot at the national championship game. Cal (32-3) is at its best when it is running, and nobody runs faster than Boyd, the true hometown girl on a roster full of Californians.
"She was born to be on a basketball court," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "Don't think you get to this point without someone who has the ball in her hands who is a true, true competitor."
Boyd went to Berkeley High School, a four-minute drive from the Cal campus. She grew up in Richmond, eight miles down the freeway on Highway 580, and Cal was where she wanted to go.
But Boyd found herself in a tough spot two years ago when coach Joanne Boyle left Cal to replace Debbie Ryan at Virginia. Boyle had called Boyd to tell her she was going back to interview for the job. But when the coach called back two days later to say she was leaving, Boyd admitted she was a little floored.
"I was kind of hurt. I was sad," Boyd said. "But it's part of the business. And I wasn't sure whether I was going to stay at Cal or not."
Boyd decided to wait and see who would be hired before making a decision.
Gottlieb, who recruited some of Cal's seniors when she was the associate head coach under Boyle, remembered Boyd as the talented middle-schooler who used to come to Cal summer camps. The coach called her right away.
They scheduled a meeting at Boyd's home. Her dad asked about basketball, how Gottlieb would use Boyd. Her mother asked about academics.
"Brittany belongs playing at Cal in front of her hometown fans," Gottlieb said. "I was making sure they felt comfortable with me as a person and as a coach."
Boyd left the meeting with her mind made up.
"She didn't make any promises or anything like that. She just said 'I want to be your coach,'" Boyd said. "I could just feel like she was being genuine. And I thought about it and thought that it wouldn't be a bad decision to stay."
And it has worked out pretty well.
As a freshman, Boyd was given the keys to the team on the floor. She was the driver. She averaged 10.2 points and 4.8 assists. In the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament against Iowa, Boyd busted out for 15 points, eight assists, six steals and six rebounds. In the second round against Notre Dame, Boyd learned the tough lessons of youth.
She got into early foul trouble, played just 22 minutes and finished with nine points. And when she looked across the floor at Irish guard Skylar Diggins, in command and under control of her team, she saw what she wanted to become.
"When I really grew up was the loss at Notre Dame," Boyd said. "Playing against Diggins; that motivated me, just to see how good she was, to guard her and defend her. It was when I started to realize my role on the team, how important that is."
Gottlieb said, if anything, she's had to talk to Boyd about shaking off mistakes.
"Her standards are so high. She wants to be perfect," Gottlieb said. "She will make plays sometimes from her natural ability but also from how much she hates losing."
Boyd is not only preparing to lead her team to a national championship, but she is laying the foundation for the next two years.
With seniors Layshia Clarendon and Eliza Pierre finishing their careers, she will become Cal's new tonesetter, ushering the Bears into a new era in which the Final Four is no longer a holy grail but a been-there-done-that-so-let's-do-it-again proposition.
Expectations have been raised -- for Boyd as well.
"I know the ball is in my hands, and it's my decision-making and it's going to come down to my decisions," Boyd said. "My role is to get my teammates involved in the places where they are most effective."
Boyd raised her scoring average to 12.7 points a game this season. She also averages 4.3 assists. She had her best scoring game against Duke in December with 28 points and barely missed a triple-double in the NCAA tournament opener against Fresno State with 21 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists.
Clarendon said she has watched Boyd mature beyond her play on the floor.
"She wasn't our struggle kid, but it's hard being a point guard as a freshman," Clarendon said. "We really had to bring her along, like 'C'mon.' And I thought about this the other day. She's going to be a junior next year, and there will be a freshman class coming in. She's really going to rise to the occasion when she has those kids under her, when she has to be the bigger sibling, similar to what we had to do with her."
Boyd said she is ready to tap into that part of her game -- one that doesn't depend on her quickness or her willingness to charge into the paint, but on skills she has perhaps underused to this point.
"I do have leadership abilities, and I haven't had to use them as much with Layshia out there," Boyd said. "I am preparing myself, because they are leaving, and I'm trying to keep this team together as much as possible. I know I need to use my voice."
Boyd's time is coming. On your mark, get set, go.
13dBonnie D. Ford