Cal women’s basketball welcomes Wichita State to Haas Pavilion on Friday as NCAA Tournament opens

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With the whole squad sitting in its reserved section in Pappy’s to watch Monday’s NCAA tournament selection show, everybody from fans and alumni to media and team staff was sitting patiently to find out where Cal women’s basketball would be playing in the first two rounds of March Madness. As soon as the Bears’ name popped up on the screen above the bar, the whole club jumped and rejoiced.

Cal will be hosting and opening up its tournament Friday at 4:30 p.m. against No. 13 Wichita State.

Twitter erupted, and hugs were exchanged. But the celebrations were only temporary. Because although the Bears are hosting the tournament in Haas Pavilion, the celebration they really want will take place in April in Tampa, where the Final Four is.

Placed in the Albany conference, Cal is coming in as the No. 4 seed behind No. 3 Louisville, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 1 UConn, the favorite to win the tournament.

But these teams are very far down the road. Right now, the team’s focus is on Wichita State. And if the Bears can take care of the Shockers on Friday night, they will play the winner of No. 12 Western Kentucky and No. 5 Texas, who will be waiting for them Sunday.

Because Cal men’s basketball declined its College Basketball Invitational bid, Sunday will be the last time this season there will be a basketball game in Haas Pavilion. The Bears will try to make sure they will be the last winning team to play on their court this 2014-15 season.

From what Cal has demonstrated in the past month, making it out of the first two rounds and making a run against higher seeded teams is not impossible. For the better half of this season, the Bears have primarily relied on star senior forward Reshanda Gray to post-up and do work inside the paint when in the half-court set.

Other than Gray, the only other time Cal could get points at a consistent rate is to run its 2-2-1 full-court press to trap defenders, force sloppy passes and pressure other teams’ ball-handlers from bringing the ball up. When run successfully, this defense generates a lot of turnovers and many opportunities to get senior star point-guard Brittany Boyd going on the fast-break, where she is one of the most dangerous players in the country.

These two strategies don’t always work, however. Some teams can take care of the ball more effectively and are not affected by physical defenses, and Gray is almost always double- or triple-teamed in the paint even before she gets the ball.

Usually when a player like Gray can draw attention from multiple defenders, that leaves holes in the defense and the offense can use ball movement to find open shooters behind the three-point line.

The only problem for most of the season has been that Cal has not had a consistent deep ball threat. A large part of the Bears’ struggles were because of missed open 3-pointers that were basically turnovers for the other team to capitalize on in transition.

In the past nine games, that trend has changed with the emergence of sophomore guard Mercedes Jefflo, who has shot 20-46 from three during the last nine game stretch. Primarily a defensive specialist, Jefflo has not made many offensive contributions until late in the season. But averaging 13 points since her career-high 23 point performance against UCLA on Feb. 12, Jefflo has established herself as an extra weapon Cal can lean on when every defender’s eyes are on Boyd and Gray. Jefflo is a third threat.

Things are finally starting to come together for the Bears. They have picked the perfect time to start playing their best basketball and the threats of Boyd, Jefflo and Gray and the vicious team defense could be enough to take Cal to Tampa.

“Coach G’s been telling us all year we can be great. We can be phenomenal. We’re great, blah blah blah,” Jefflo said. “And I think we believed her, we just had to put it together and figure out how to be great as a team.”

Ritchie Lee covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].