All year long, head coach Lindsay Gottlieb wanted the Cal women’s basketball team to be recognized as an elite team. On Monday night at Spokane, Wash., the team took one step further in solidifying its rising recognition.
The No. 2 seed Bears defeated No. 4 seed Georgia (28-7, 11-4) in a 65-62 overtime thriller to win the Spokane Regional. After advancing to the program’s first-ever trip to the Elite Eight, Cal secured a trip to the Final Four in New Orleans.
The first 10 minutes of the game, however, brought out a Cal team that looked nothing like the Pac-12’s highest-scoring offense. The Bears, who rely on their active guards to drive into the paint, were silenced by Georgia’s aggressive 2-3 zone defense.
Though the Bears (32-3, 16-1) were dominating the offensive boards — six rebounds compared to the Bulldogs’ one — they could not finish their opportunities. Making only one of its first 18 field goals, Cal’s ice-cold shooting didn’t help to spread the floor either.
Guard Afure Jemerigbe, usually a quiet factor on offense, kept the Bears close on the scoreboard. The junior guard led the team early with six points as the team tied the game at 11.
The post players initially struggled heavily. Forward Gennifer Brandon’s absence in the paint was most surprising and glaring. The junior nabbed only six rebounds, three of which were offensive rebounds, and missed all seven of her shot attempts the entire game. She ended the game with zero points.
The Bears also suffered early on from poor defensive rotations. Slow and missed switches meant easier passing lanes for the Bulldogs. Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s decision to run her defenders under screens also meant more open shooting chances for Georgia guards.
Thanks to the stringent Georgia zone defense, the Bears found themselves down 26-21 at halftime. Considering the Bears only shot 24.2 percent compared to the Bulldogs’ 42 percent, they were lucky to only be down by five.
The second half began no better for the Bears. With Brittany Boyd out, Cal had even fewer options for attacking the zone. At the 15:16 mark, Georgia held a solid 36-29 lead.
But the Bears bounced back soon after. Layshia Clarendon scored a 3-point shot to spur a 9-1 run. The Bears matched their offensive explosion with defensive intensity, holding the Bulldogs scoreless for five minutes. Cal trailed, 37-36, with 11:59 remaining.
The game teetered in Georgia’s direction as the Bulldogs continued to stifle Cal’s inside game. Outrebounded by the Bears the entire game, the Bulldogs maximized their shots from the field and from the free throw line. They shot 36 percent from the field and 67 percent from the charity stripe.
Nevertheless, the Bears found their identity once again as they entered the final eight minutes. The Bears initiated a 13-1 run to tie the game as the final minute approached, but Georgia’s Anne Armstrong grabbed a tip and made a layup to equalize the game, 52-52.
Clarendon’s quick 3-point shot in the final seconds rimmed out to force overtime.
The tone was entirely different in overtime. Though the Bulldogs struck first with a 3-pointer, Cal continued its defensive suffocation and kept Georgia scoreless until the 1:03 mark.
As Reshanda Gray split a pair of free throws, another 3-point shot by Armstrong in the final 10 seconds made it a one-possession game. After Clarendon made only one of two free throws, Georgia, who was without timeouts, needed a 3-point shot to tie the game.
A last-second hurl from afar flew wide over the backboard, and the bench players flooded the court to commence the celebration.