Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cal women's basketball: The kids are alright

This is Cal basketball /
Lindsay Gottlieb (center) surrounded by her 2013-14 team.

"Never a dull moment" is how Lindsay Gottlieb, head coach of the University of California, Berkeley women's basketball team, summed up her team's 101-98 overtime victory over Oregon University on Sunday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.

This is Cal basketball and, so far, it's been a season filled with bright moments and promises of future greatness orchestrated by the young and cerebral Gottlieb, 36, an Ivy League-educated (Brown) and self-described "basketball nerd," who is a believer in strong personal connections with her players and enjoys communicating with fans via social media (her Twitter handle is @CalCoachG).

Indeed, there's never a dull moment following Cal women's basketball. The Bears have become a nationally-recognized team through social media and by appearing often on both ESPN and the Pac-12 Network. They have fun off the court while also keeping their focus on the court. And, they count the best-selling author Michael Lewis (Moneyball) and the hip-hop music artist 50 Cent among their fans.

Their latest victory improved the Golden Bears' record to 10-3 in this still young 2013-14 season (2-0 in the Pac-12 Conference), and Sunday's contest was the highest-scoring women's game in Haas Pavilion history, both for Cal as well as the combined score of 199 points.

Against Cal, Oregon fired up 101 shots in their run-and-gun attack designed by former NBA coach Paul Westhead, 74, who once guided the L.A. Lakers (1979-81) back in the days of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Magic Johnson. Many of those 101 shots taken by the Ducks -- most of them from perimeter range -- went swish through the basket.

Reshanda Gray lunges off balance
for a second-half lay up against
Oregon on Sunday afternoon.
Fortunately for the Bears, junior forward/center Reshanda Gray scored a career-high 33 points, including 24 in the second half, to go with 13 rebounds, two assists and a steal before fouling out during the overtime period. Not bad when you consider that she hit just 2 of 7 attempts in the first half and couldn't buy a basket.

"I could have shut down in the first half when I was missing shots," said Gray, who before the game was presented with a plaque for her participation in leading the U.S. to a gold medal in last summer's World University Games in Kazan, Russia.

"Reshanda is so good and I tell her every second that she can be better," said Gottlieb, during her post-game interview. "So at half time I really got into her, not for missing layups but for not being as confident and finishing as she could, and look what she did! She turned around and put up incredible numbers."

Gray added: "It means a lot. It definitely wouldn't happen without my teammates."

Or without the support of Coach G.

After the game, Gottlieb tweeted: "Career high for this kid, love the smile the most."

On a Sunday afternoon filled with lots of smiles, my wife and I sat in the same lucky seats (Section 9, Row CC, seats 23 and 24) as we did on Friday night when Cal beat Oregon State 72-63. We bought a five-game season ticket before the start of the season to support the team. However, we've had so much fun attending home games we've decided to go to all of them.

Coach Lindsay Gottlieb stands
for much of each game and isn't
afraid to turn a timeout into
a teaching moment.
After all, when you're just three rows from the court and sitting behind the baseline, not only are the sight lines excellent, you also hear the sound of the game -- the bounce of the basketball, the calling out of plays by Coach Gottlieb from the bench and the voices of the players, too. There's senior guard Mikayla Lyles, arguably the heart and soul of this year's team, yelling "Arms! Arms!" to her teammates, reminding them to keep their arms up when they're on defense. Meanwhile, on offense, Lyles contributed 12 points on dead-eye 4-for-4 shooting from beyond the three-point line against Oregon.

Buying into a "we" not "me" team concept, a variety of Cal players have stepped forward and provided valuable contributions that have enabled victories on the court.

On Sunday, it was Gray, who took control of her team's offense and made some key defensive plays, too. And, freshman forward Courtney Range rose to the occasion by scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, both career bests.

Two nights earlier against Oregon State, it was junior guard Brittany Boyd, who knocked in 25 points (13 above her average) from both inside and outside the paint. She added seven rebounds and seven assists for one of her most complete efforts of the season.

Hind Ben Abdelkader sinks one of
her six three-point baskets against
Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 15.
A few weeks before that, it was Belgian freshman guard Hind (rhymes with wind) Ben Abdelkader, who shot out the lights against Cal State Bakersfield with an 18-point performance that included making six of nine three-point field goals, a best for her brief collegiate career. It earned the trilingual Ben Abdelkader (she's fluent in French, Dutch and English) the nickname La Bombe Belge ("The Belgian Bomber") from San Francisco Chronicle basketball writer John Crumpacker.

Throughout the season, the Bears have garnered steady play and leadership from senior guard/forward Afure Jemerigbe, who is averaging 10.9 points per game, and Sunday afternoon was notable because preseason All-America forward Gennifer Brandon, out since Nov. 15 because of unspecified personal reasons, returned to the team and provided spark off the bench. In just 22 minutes, the 6-foot-2 senior known for her colorfully-braided hair and friendly demeanor, scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds. Brandon earned one of the day's biggest ovations from the Haas Pavilion crowd of 2,071 when she entered the contest after 6:38 had been played, and her game-tying basket with 4:33 left in the first half made her the 24th player in team history to score 1,000 points for a career.

In the second half against Oregon, Cal went on a 21-11 run to go ahead 72-61. However, the Ducks' scrappy defense allowed them to climb back in the game and send it into overtime at 88-all. Fortunately for the Bears, Boyd broke a 96-96 tie and scored her team's final five points on a basket and three free throws in the last 43 seconds of the contest to secure the win.

"I think we learned a lot about this team this weekend," Gottlieb told the Chronicle after Sunday's victory. "That resilience was a trademark of our team last year, and now we know it's a trademark of our program."

• • • • •

Last year was a breakout year for the Cal women's basketball team. On the court, the Bears won their first Pac-12 Conference title (sharing it with Stanford) en route to a 30-plus-win season and they earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, led by senior Layshia Clarendon. Off the court, they launched their own website This Is Cal Basketball, which goes well beyond the Xs and Os of the game and been updated for this season. It's a rare opportunity for fans to learn about the lives of the Cal players away from the court -- what's important to each of them personally and as student-athletes -- and to realize up close that they're a wonderful group of young and mature adults who just happen to share the same zest for fun and success as Gottlieb, their passionate coach and mentor, on the court.

Peaking at the right time last season, Cal went on a four-game winning streak and won the Spokane Regional with an exciting 65-62 overtime victory over Georgia to gain a berth in the NCAA Final Four in New Orleans, a school first. Clarendon scored 25 points in the region final and played all 45 minutes.  She and her teammates even starred in their own music video "Started from the Bottom." Suddenly, the Bears became the media darlings of the postseason and everyone wanted to write their story.

"My philosophy in general is that college athletics should be an enjoyable experience for the people involved in it," said Gottlieb, a native of Scarsdale, N.Y., during last season's journey to the Final Four. "I think you have to embrace this team's nature of being fun-loving. You have to empower them to enjoy the experience. I can do that because I'm so confident in their focus. They're creative, and they're smart kids. If anything, I think that when they're happier and enjoying it, they're more likely to play hard and play well."

In the national semifinals against fifth-seeded Louisville, after controlling the first half with good shooting and rebounding, Cal lost its ability to score and to control the boards. Their shots stopped going in. The Bears lost 64-57 to a better team in Louisville. Their wonderful 32-4 season had ended abruptly and seemed unfinished. However, even in defeat, the foundation for future success had been molded.

• • • • •

The Bears drew a record 10,771 fans to Haas Pavilion
for their home game against No. 2 Duke on Nov. 11.

To prepare for this season, Cal made an overseas trip to China last August that gave the team valuable game experience and enabled them to bond together in a unique environment. Then, Gottlieb went out and scheduled pre-conference games against the two top teams in the country: No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Duke. Both games were nationally televised by the ESPN networks. And, although the Bears lost both games (by 33 points to UConn and by 12 to Duke), it gave them a sense of where they stood on the court and what they needed to do to improve. Against Duke, they drew their biggest home crowd ever at Haas Pavilion with 10,771 fans.

The Bears, who are 7-1 at Haas Pavilion (with an average attendance of 2,873 fans per game), hit the road for their next four games starting Friday at Colorado. Their national ranking has improved to No. 19 as they've put together a three-game winning streak since losing against UConn in the Maggie Dixon Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York last month.

With a conference title to defend and expectations of returning to the Final Four, the bar has been set high for the rest of the season for Cal. Gottlieb and her players wouldn't want it any other way. And, if last weekend's games are any indication, there won't be any dull moments, either. After all, this is Cal basketball -- and, these kids are alright.

A postscript: On Friday night, No. 19 Cal overcame a 10-point deficit twice in the second half and took the lead with just seven seconds left in the game on an Afure Jemerigbe layup for a come-from-behind 57-55 victory over No. 17 Colorado University in Boulder, Colo. The win keeps the Bears' (11-3, 3-0 conference) Pac-12 regular season winning streak alive at 18 consecutive games.

After the game, Coach Lindsay Gottlieb tweeted: "There's something special about a group of young people who refuse to give in. We make lots of mistakes, but we have warriors and that's cool."

Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Bears beat Utah 68-59 to remain unbeaten in Pac-12 play (4-0, 12-3 overall) as Brittany Boyd scored 24 points and grabbed seven rebounds to go along with four assists and three steals.

Cal team photograph and video courtesy of Calbears.com and thisiscalbasketball.com.
All other photographs by Michael Dickens, copyright 2013, 2014.

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