Chasing championships with Eliza Pierre

Photo of Cal Women's Basketball Final Four
Jeff Liang/Courtesy

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One weekend when I was home, my sister asked, “Why isn’t Berkeley playing in March Madness?” I was unsure of how to break the news that we’re not exactly known for our athletics. But in thinking on the subject, I realized I’d never seen Cal in the tournament.

In looking for a team to prove myself wrong, I happened upon the 2012-2013 women’s tournament, the first time the Bears’ women’s team had made it past the Sweet Sixteen, let alone the Elite Eight.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Eliza Pierre, a family friend who was a defensive titan in this historic run to the Final Four, to discuss the difficulties and privileges of being a college athlete. As a fourth year veteran and the sixth woman on the roster, Pierre’s off-the-bench energy gave Cal an edge when it most needed it. The team seemed destined for success from the get-go. 

“I can’t lie, it felt like that was our year,” Pierre said.

After a successful season and a decisive performance in the early rounds of the tournament, the Bears were off to a historic start, complete with a send-off party featuring the Cal band and a speech by then-head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb.

“Kobe gave us a little shoutout, we ran into Marshawn Lynch,” Pierre said. 

Perhaps most notably, then-President Barack Obama picked the Cal women’s team to make it to the Final Four on his personal bracket. Pierre recalls the locker room screaming rewritten lyrics to Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” in celebration.

To top it off, Cal was placed in the same starting bracket as its hometown rival, Stanford, setting up a possible meeting if both teams made it to the Final Four. Envisioning a possible Pac-12 semifinal bout, Eliza explained the team was actually more excited than worried about the potential showdown.

“You know, you’re competitive, but you want the Pac-12 to do well,” Pierre said. 

Plus, Pierre believed that the teams’ familiarity with one another could work to Cal’s advantage. 

“I mean, by that time I had played them eight times, so I was just like, ‘Hey, another game.’ It didn’t feel like a whole new team you had to prepare for.”

Unluckily for fans across the Bay Area, Stanford was knocked out in the Sweet Sixteen round by Georgia, who Cal would go on to play in the next round. Facing off against the Bulldogs in the Elite Eight, the Bears met their toughest challenge of the tournament. 

“They play hard, they’re fast, they had all the pieces that year,” Eliza said. “Up until the last shot of that game, it was a battle. It was like playing ourselves.”

Reaching overtime after a 52-52 stalemate in regulation, Cal buckled down to take the win 65-62.

The blue and gold met their match against Louisville in the semifinal round, bringing their historic run to an end. Still, Pierre maintains that the tournament was a highlight of her college career.

While the tournament run was a resounding victory for the Bears program, the underlying issues of gender and equity that persist to this day were equally present eight years ago during Cal’s tournament run.

This year, the NCAA caught national attention for its hopelessly inadequate attempt at a weight room in the hotel of teams competing in the women’s NCAA Tournament, reigniting the age-old discussion of gender equity in collegiate sports.

As she’s a veteran of the tournament, I asked Pierre about the recent NCAA scandal and her experience with gender discrimination in the sporting world. Pierre explained that she and her team didn’t have the same opportunities to speak out as current tournament goers.

“We obviously knew that there was probably more money being put here than there,” Pierre said. “But it didn’t seem like they had shorted us any kind of dollar amount.”

Still, Pierre applauds the progress made by current players in their fight for gender equality.

“I wouldn’t say that my class was in the age of recording everything and making people pay for things that we didn’t think was okay. We’re in a space where the time is now for us to all start speaking up and speaking out,” Pierre said.

Intertwined with the conversation about gender equality is the conversation about player compensation. For decades, college athletes and their supporters have claimed that the work they put in and the revenue they generate for their institutions far exceeds that which they receive in tuition subsidies. Now, as Pierre has transitioned into coaching at UCSB, she has unique insight into both sides of the argument.

“I have sympathy for what those players are saying, and especially when people are making money off of an athlete’s name,” Pierre said. “I’m not against it, because our players do work hard, but I don’t know if it will solve everything, the way people are making it seem.”

Along with the traditional issues, COVID-19 played a unique role in the past two seasons. To athletes and programs affected by the pandemic, Pierre offers her understanding and support.

“This season was not a right or wrong season for any athlete who made a decision based off of their own self, and I just really hope that everyone’s at home, safe, healthy and that those programs that didn’t get a season can bounce back next year,” Pierre said. 

Even with the failings of the league and the challenges still facing both Pierre’s program and the Bears, Pierre is thankful for what this time has taught her. 

“I love my staff that I work with, the players, the athletic department,” Pierre said. “Especially in times like right now when you’ve got to really lean on people who you trust and love, it really kind of just showed that I’m in the right space, I’m where I need to be.”

Luke Stiles writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected]