It was the first time any current Cal player competed in an NCAA tournament game.
And after Sunday morning’s 84-74 drubbing of Iowa, it won’t be the last.
The last time the Cal women’s basketball team received an NCAA berth was in 2009. For the first time since the team’s inaugural season, the roster has no seniors. Head coach Lindsay Gottlieb is only in her first year at the helm of the program. The tournament experience, for everyone, was wholly unprecedented.
From her very first day on the job, Gottlieb has stressed her conviction that Cal could be a perennial top-25 threat. For a team that spent the entire year unranked, that dream is still at least a year away. The Bears’ next NCAA challenge, a tilt with top-seed Notre Dame on the Irish’s home court Tuesday at 4 p.m., could easily cut short Cal’s fledgling tournament run.
But on Sunday, in arguably the team’s best game of late, Cal certainly looked like a threat.
The Bears’ partner in their first-round dance: Iowa, a team that streaked to the end of its regular season with eight consecutive victories.
In the span of four minutes in Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion, Iowa looked like a threat as well.
But that was it – four minutes. Other that than that, the Bears (25-9) manhandled the Hawkeyes.
Five minutes into the opening period, Iowa took a three-point lead off a long-range shot from Kamille Wahlin. Through the ensuing four minutes, the Hawkeyes (19-12) clutched that tentative lead while Cal staggered through scoring slumps.
Then Afure Jemerigbe nailed a quick 3-pointer to reignite her team and bring the score within three. A layup and a lone free throw from Talia Caldwell less than a minute later tied the score. Two freebies from Brittany Boyd tipped the team ahead, 21-19.
The Bears never relinquished that lead, and the score never again narrowed that much.
Abysmal ball control completely killed Iowa. The team notched a staggering 18 turnovers that counteracted whatever momentum the team tacked onto its score. Of those turnovers, 13 were steals, which the Bears exploited on fast transitions for 27 points. Boyd nabbed a game-high six steals, jumping into passing lanes and at one point ripping the ball out of an opponent’s hands for a fastbreak layup.
“I felt we had more turnovers on passing decisions, people were in the passing lanes and forcing things there,” said Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder. “Those are the ones that concern me the most because those are the ones we should not be making this time of year.”
Alone, the turnovers weren’t the proverbial nails in Iowa’s gameday coffin. But when combined with an utter inability to muster any prowess on the glass, the Hawkeyes’ fate was sealed.
The squad gasped for only seven offensive boards; in comparison, the Bears overpowered opposing drives with 19 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points.
“California could write a textbook on how to rebound,” Bluder said. “They are exceptional at maintaining that persistence for the basketball.”
Iowa was behind, but not completely dead. With a little over two minutes left, the contest seemed over. But back-to-back treys from Wahlin and Kelly Krei cut the Hawkeyes’ deficit to 80-74. Cal found security in arguably its weakest link: free throws. Despite being ranked 327th out of 336 Division I schools in free throw percentage, the Bears managed to widen the margin off freebies from Boyd and Clarendon.