A new era begins for California basketball

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Breathe it in. Soak it up. Because, possibly, you’ll never see anything quite like this.

For the first 36 minutes against Georgia Monday night, the Cal women’s basketball team did not play Cal basketball. Star forward Gennifer Brandon couldn’t make a single shot. The offense was stuffed by Georgia’s zone defense.

Then it all just clicked at the most pivotal time. Layshia Clarendon played the game of her career, singlehandedly carrying her team to tie the game at the end of regulation and winning the contest in overtime. The team got the timely rebounds and hustle plays that separate winners from losers.

It was heart-pounding and thrilling. Cal fans, jaded from years of tantalizing Cinderella runs and subsequent disappointments, readied for another disappointment to add to the long list. High expectations and hope were the cardinal sins of any Cal fan.

But this time, the disappointment never came to reality. The victory was incredibly refreshing. While the women’s basketball team always labels its brand of basketball “Cal basketball,” it was so un-Cal.

In a university filled with half-century-long droughts in the major sports, the 40-year-old Cal women’s basketball team just ended one by reaching its first-ever Final Four. For the first time in a very long time, a major sport from Cal is now a force to be reckoned with on the national landscape.

Since 1960, Cal basketball (both men’s and women’s) has been waiting for a Final Four contender to arrive at Berkeley. Few would have guessed that it would be the women’s basketball team to take the program to the long-awaited promised land.

A lot has changed in the last 53 years. First and foremost, the women’s basketball team was born under Title IX in 1972. Then in the 1990s and the 2000s, Stanford carved its niche as the sole powerhouse of Pac-12 women’s basketball.

Cal, in its 40-year history, had flashes of brilliance but couldn’t take that pivotal step in consolidating itself as one of the top programs in the nation.

But on Monday night, the program finally took the giant leap to be considered an elite program. The Bears are heading to New Orleans. Cal is in the Final Four.

And this is probably not going anywhere for a very long time. In only her second year as coach at UC Berkeley, Lindsay Gottlieb has been a miracle worker, building a foundation around her strong enough to compete with the Stanfords of college women’s basketball.

The 35-year old coach, arguably the best young coach in college women’s basketball, won’t be leaving anytime soon. Once an assistant coach to former head coach Joanne Boyle, Gottlieb planted her coaching roots at Cal.

A graduate of Brown University, Gottlieb has embraced the program and university. Wearing her emotions on her sleeves, her admiration and love of the university is genuine and contagious. She means it when she says that she wants to turn Cal into a women’s basketball powerhouse.

While football coaches and men’s basketball coaches have fallen short in putting the Bears on the national map, Gottlieb did it in two years. With a proven track record, a young, dedicated head coach and a solid foundation, perhaps it’s time to accept women’s basketball as the premier major sport at Cal and foster it by any means necessary to become the next Tennessee, Connecticut or Stanford.

Last year, when Gottlieb was still making her stamp as the head coach, she said she wanted to hit a home run: to deliver a Final Four appearance to Berkeley one day.

That one day was Monday night at Spokane, Wash. Welcome to the new Cal basketball.

Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @sngyn92.