Championship mentality built on sisterhood

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The dynamic was perfect, the timing was perfect. Cal women’s basketball has the right to call itself Pac-12 regular season co-champs for the first time in school history, and almost everything was perfect.

In April 2011, then-Cal coach Joanne Boyle left the Bears for the head coaching position at the University of Virginia. She left a team that had almost reached the top of the mountain, placing second in the Pac-12 in both in ’07-08 and ’08-09.

With Boyle gone and the Bears in trouble of wasting a talented crop of players still at the program, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour needed to find a coach to keep the Bears moving in the right direction.

Two weeks after Boyle’s departure, Lindsay Gottlieb was given the keys to the Cal program. The young coach, unproven and equipped with only her 56-39 record as UC Santa Barbara’s head coach, had big shoes to fill and little time to build respect.

Last season, Gottlieb’s first year at the program came to an abrupt end with a defeat at the hands of the second-seeded Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament. But the team was young with a strong young crop with no seniors. The talent was there, and Gottlieb knew it.

Gottlieb did not sign a single recruit for the 2012-13 season. The coach had her team.

And she was right.

This year, the Bears had a powerful team dynamic, supported by a group of dedicated seniors and a backed by one singular message: We are a family.

Every postgame interview, every post-practice talk, the word “sisters” would be cited at least once. That’s what the players on this year’s team were to one another: sisters. They looked out for one another on the court and off the court.

The seniors Talia Caldwell, Eliza Pierre, Layshia Clarendon and Tierra Rogers acted as the big sisters, providing invaluable leadership. Meanwhile, the younger sisters, such as Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray, have only grown under the wing of the older members on the squad.

But this familial bond could only work with a young coach like Gottlieb. Having a coach who could toe the line between coach and friend without losing the respect of her team worked wonders for this squad.

The average age of the coach of the current top-five teams in the country is 54 years. Then the Bears, at No. 6, have Gottlieb at age 35.

Not only was the dynamic perfect, the Bears had a schedule that gave the them the best chance to dethrone Stanford. Playing the Cardinal at home and away back on Jan. 6 and Jan. 13, respectively, and four straight home games following the Stanford tilts allowed the Bears to build a head of steam and bulldoze through conference play.

Although the team’s work is not done, the Bears’ regular season was nearly flawless thanks to a developed team dynamic, a gracious schedule and a coach who could tie it all together.

“I think that (this season) is a testament to where our players have been and where we were on the way,” Clarendon said back on Feb. 24. “Our coaching staff, with Lindsay coming in and saying, ‘Follow me, I’ll show you guys what to do.’

“‘Come in and work hard every day, give us your all and we are going to go places.’”

Clarendon and the Bears sealed their first Pac-12 title far from home in Seattle. When the final buzzer sounded, the lasting image of the match was the Bears mobbing the floor with Gottlieb right in the middle of the celebration, together as one family.

Austin Crochetiere covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].