Faced with Final Four expectations, Cal women’s basketball kicks off NCAA tournament against Fresno State

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For the past few days, Cal women’s basketball has tried to ignore the constant noise and speculation of a rematch with Stanford.

As the No. 2 seed in the same region as the top-seeded Cardinal, much of the discussion has centered around the possible Elite Eight matchup with Stanford. President Barack Obama added fuel to the rumor when he picked the Bears to make the Final Four.

“One of the first things I said at the selection show was that whatever is said — good or bad — focus on people in the room,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “That’s what got us here. Whatever the president says, we’re going to have to block it out.”

While everyone expects big things from the Bears (28-3, 16-1 in the Pac-12), the team still has to make it out of the early rounds, starting with No. 15 seed Fresno State (24-8, 13-3 in the Mountain West) on Saturday at 1:20 p.m.

The last time the Bears saw the court, they lost to No. 11 UCLA in the semifinal of the Pac-12 Tournament 70-58. The Bears tip off in Lubbock, Texas, exactly two weeks since their early exit from the Pac-12 Tournament, but the extra time off has been a blessing in disguise.

“We needed the rest emotionally and physically,” Gottlieb said. “Because we didn’t know who we were going to play, it gave us a chance to get back to who we are.”

For a week, the Bears did not know which team they would face and could not prepare appropriately. Finally, the Monday selection show revealed their opponent would be the Bulldogs.

Fresno State is the most intriguing 15-seed in the tourney. In addition to being one of the hottest teams in the country, the Bulldogs, who won 14 out of their last 16 games, are one of the more atypical teams in the country for their spread-the-floor style and defensive pressure.

Junior guard Ki-Ki Moore acts as the floor general for Fresno State. Moore leads the team with 17.2 points per game, but her ability to find shooters anywhere on the floor allows the Bulldogs’ offense to gel.

From the shooting guard all the way to the center position, Fresno State can shoot. The combination of a dribble-drive point guard and shooters who can spread the floor may create fits for the Bears, especially if the Bulldogs get hot from behind the arc.

“They are unique because they spread you out, and you really have to guard everybody on the perimeter, even the post players,” Gottlieb said.

On the defensive side of the ball, Fresno State ranks third nationally with 13 steals per game due to their full-court pressure defense. In the Mountain West Tournament on March 14 to 16, Fresno State’s starting five scored 92.4 percent of the team’s points.

A No. 2 seed has never lost to a No. 15 seed in the history of the women’s tournament, but Fresno State is not a typical No. 15 seed. The Bears know this and will therefore play with urgency.

“It’s time to start our third season,” Gottlieb said. “This is a team that’s humble but hungry and knows there is a lot more basketball in front of us.”

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