You have no idea what the WNIT is, do you? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Nobody knows what it is.
This is a disappointing pandemic that has afflicted the country ever since the WNIT’s founding.
The WNIT is the female equivalent to the National Invitational Tournament, the consolation prize for teams that couldn’t break into the NCAA tournament. It’s where mediocre seasons go to die a prolonged and pitiable death.
And for the past two years, it’s where the Cal women’s basketball did just that.
Granted, in 2009 the team took home the WNIT title. That probably made the Bears better than half the teams that went dancing. But a WNIT title doesn’t evoke the same awe as an NCAA appearance. It’s an inflated award that teams receive with a certain amount of self-aware pomp, as if afraid to make too grand a fuss.
But this year, that changes. The Cal women’s basketball team got a ticket to the Big Dance. It’s the first time any current player will lace up their dancing shoes.
It’s hard not to get romantic about this team. Cal was, for lack of a sophisticated metaphor, the Little Engine that Could. This team is entirely devoid of seniors. The team relied from the get-go on its No. 7 recruiting class to ride a steep learning curve and contribute major minutes. Despite the Bears’ glaring weaknesses – free throws, turnovers – players like Talia Caldwell and Gennifer Brandon beat opponents at the boards and pushed the team to the No. 3 rebounding margin in the country. Playmakers like Layshia Clarendon and Brittany Boyd set the fast tempo that pushed the team to its second-place finish in the Pac-12.
How much a year can change. This time last year Cal floundered to a 15-14 regular season finish and a second-round WNIT exit. This time last year the team lacked any sense of cohesion.
So take a look through the past year and see how far Cal has come.
It all started last April, when six-year head coach Joanne Boyle left for Virginia and Cal brought in Lindsay Gottlieb. Part fire-and-brimstone preacher, part grassroots brander, Gottlieb revitalized a stagnant squad on a 22-8 regular-season marathon and earned an eight seed in this year’s NCAA chase.
Rewind back to last November, when Cal sent in true freshman Boyd to start the second game of the fledgling season. Her stat line was unimpressive – seven points in 21 minutes – but she cemented her position as the unequivocal spitfire of the starting five.
And slow down a little as you glance over the Jan. 28 overtime thriller against Stanford. It was the first time Maples Pavilion saw a women’s game go to extra minutes since 2007.
There were lows, of course. A sweep in Los Angeles at the turn of the new year hinted at the Bears’ suspect road performance. The same Cal team that held Stanford to its closest win of the season got blown out by 25 points in its home finale five weeks later.
And should the Bears survive their first-round game against ninth-seeded Iowa this Sunday, they’ll likely lose to a top-ranked Notre Dame soon after.
But this season is one for the ages. If you’ve been following since day one, congrats: you got in on the ground floor of something promising.
It won’t get much farther than this. The squad is too young to make a deep run.
Damn, it’s been one exciting season to witness. And it’s not quite over yet.