For most of the season, the Cal women’s basketball team has played second fiddle to Stanford. With the Bears’ placement as the No. 2 seed in the Spokane region, it looks like they might get one more shot at revenge against its Pac-12 foe.
In a packed press room in California Memorial Stadium, all 12 Cal players, dozens of staff and more than a hundred spectators loudly roared at the announcement of the decision.
They are seeded right behind Stanford as the No. 1 Spokane seed. Their first-round matchup places the Bears (28-3) against the No. 15 seed Fresno State (24-8) in Lubbock, Texas, on March 23 at 4 p.m.
No. 6 Cal were expecting a No. 2 seed already, having lost any opportunity to seize the top seed from Stanford after an early upset to No. 11 UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament. The selection committee, however, surprised Cal with its highest tournament seed ever, with the Cardinal at the top of the region.
“It was surprising,” said guard Layshia Clarendon. “I didn’t think we’d come out so early or we’d be in that bracket. When we saw the No. 2 seed, I think you guys got a very genuine reaction of our excitement.”
Most predictions had Cal in national No. 1 Baylor’s Oklahoma City bracket. The Lady Bears from Texas, who won the NCAA tournament last year, are heavy favorites to repeat after going 32-1 on the season.
Baylor is led by senior Brittney Griner, who stands 6-foot-8 and has been the most dominant player in women’s college basketball for several years. Over that period of time, Baylor has been almost unstoppable.
Regardless, the Bears insist they didn’t care what region they were placed in. Looking down the road to an Elite Eight matchup against either Stanford or Baylor, they say, is simply too many games away.
“It wouldn’t have mattered if it had been Baylor — you just get through the first game,” said center Talia Caldwell. “No matter what bracket we would’ve been placed in, we would just look at the first opponent and say, ‘Let’s try to beat them.’”
The Bears will likely be salivating at another chance to best their Bay Area rivals. The Cardinal claimed yet another Pac-12 Tournament title just last weekend after sharing the conference title with Cal.
In their two regular-season matchups against the Bears, Stanford claimed the first, 62-53, at Haas Pavilion in January. Cal settled the score in Maples Pavilion with a 67-55 victory just days later.
For now, though, the Bears’ immediate focus is on Fresno State. The No. 15 seeded Bulldogs earned an automatic bid to the Big Dance via their Mountain West Tournament victory.
The two teams coincidentally last played in the first round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament as well. The Bears won that game and went as far as the Sweet Sixteen, their best tournament run in program history.
That was the last time the Bears made the Big Dance under former coach Joanne Boyle. Since that fantastic run, Cal had spent two disappointing seasons. Last year, incumbent coach Lindsay Gottlieb took the Bears to a short two-game run in last year’s March Madness. They lost to Notre Dame, which was seeded No. 1 in the Norfolk Regional.
For the seniors who came out of the nationally ranked No. 1 recruiting class of 2009, they recognize the difference between the teams of old and current is nothing short of night and day.
While their freshman and sophomore campaigns were far from illustrious, they are valued chapters in building perhaps the best Cal women’s basketball team yet.
“We know what it’s like to work hard and have things not go your way,” Caldwell said. “It made us who we are now, and I don’t think anyone here regrets that.”