With a trip to the NCAA championship game on the line, Cal women’s basketball set for clash with Louisville

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On Sunday, two titans will clash in New Orleans for a shot at the NCAA women’s basketball championship game.

The Cal-Louisville matchup at 3:36 p.m. is not that battle.

Both No. 1 seeds, white-hot UConn and Notre Dame blistered their respective opponents in previous rounds. Sunday’s 5:30 p.m. tilt has the potential to be a battle of Goliaths.

But two hours earlier, two Davids will tip off in the undercard matinee not simply for a slot in the championship game but also for the chance to make history.

“UConn and Notre Dame are tried and true — they’ve been there,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb in Wednesday’s press conference. “The fact that us and Louisville broke into the Final Four, I think, is going to be a good for the game.”

For the Bears (32-3), the experience is unprecedented: No Cal women’s basketball team has ever earned a Final Four bid.

Meanwhile, Louisville (28-8) is only the second No. 5 seed to ever reach the Final Four. And if the squad wins, it would be the first team ranked lower than fourth to reach the title game.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Cardinals have heart-and-soul embraced the role of the underdog this year.

The outsider status is no albatross around Louisville’s neck. The message is clear: With nothing to lose, the team has already gained an incredible victory.

The team stunned the nation when it upset top-seed juggernaut and reigning champ Baylor, 82-81, in the Sweet Sixteen.

It was the toppling heard ‘round the country, the way Gottlieb tells it.

“We have basketball fans (on the team),” Gottlieb said Wednesday. “Everyone was kind of like, ‘Wow, did this just happen?’”

The shock waves reverberated through the next round, in which the Cardinals dismantled Tennessee.

“We ruined the entire party,’’ said Louisville coach Jeff Walz. ‘’We’re the ugly ducklings that ruined the party. No one gave us a chance, and we shocked everybody. It’s a journey, and we’re going to continue.’’

Louisville might have ruined the party, but the team has since proven it certainly can dance.

However, before the Cardinals can potentially upset another top seed, they have to contend with a Cal squad that has consistently met — and sometimes exceeded – the lofty expectations of its coach all year long.

Yet the Bears aren’t underdogs so much as they are upstarts with a lightning-fast rise. In her first year with the program last year, Gottlieb took the team to the NCAA journey for the first time since 2009.

Last fall, Cal opened up the season ranked No. 13 and climbed as high as No. 5. In January, the team even toppled conference rival Stanford, ending the latter’s 81-game conference win streak. The Bears would eventually share the Pac-12 title with the Cardinal — Cal’s first conference title in program history.

If Louisville’s mantra is “nothing to lose,” then Cal’s is “why not us?” The team has known all along that it has what it takes to tackle — and trump — the very best.

“We have been in situations where we’ve had to beat these giants of college basketball, and I think now they feel like,`Why not us?’” Gottlieb said.

But some trumps have come after close calls.

The scores of each of the games in the tournament have been too close for comfort. What looks like a commanding 90-76 win over Fresno State in the opening round sobers up a bit with the caveat that the Bulldogs were a 15-seed.

At the Pac-12 tournament last month, Cal failed to penetrate UCLA’s zone defense and lost in the semifinals.

Hints of that same struggle resurfaced in Monday’s contest with Georgia. Throughout the first half, Cal remained on the outskirts of the key, unable to break through Georgia’s defense. The team trailed for the majority of the game; with seven minutes left in the game, the team was down by 10 points.

Then something clicked.

With mere seconds, left, the Bears tied the game and headed to overtime. Senior guard Layshia Clarendon lit up the stage, scoring 17 of her game-high 25 points in the second half and extra minutes. It wasn’t pretty, but Cal scraped out a 65-62 thriller to live another day.

Those scrapes, undoubtedly, are part of a larger learning curve. In December, the team faced off against No. 4 Duke and fell, 77-63. But in typical Cal fashion, Gottlieb quickly transformed the loss into yet another source of positive motivation.

“I told them after we lost at Duke: ‘We scheduled this game for a reason,’” she said on Wednesday. “‘So that we understand what it takes to beat a team like that.’”

On Sunday, the Bears finally have the chance to prove whether they mastered that lesson.

Contact Annie Gerlach at [email protected]