Cal back in NCAA tournament with all first-timers
BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - On the bus after California's season ended last year in the second round of the WNIT, several players made a vow to change.
They called a mandatory team meeting. The next postseason trip would be for the NCAA tournament and nothing less.
The Golden Bears aren't sure who actually brought the group together in the locker room that day. Eliza Pierre thinks it was Talia Caldwell, who figures it must have been fellow junior Layshia Clarendon.
Clarendon has no idea - and it hardly matters now. Cal is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since a run to the regional semifinals in 2009 capped a stretch of four straight NCAA berths by the program.
First-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb's eighth-seeded Bears (24-9) will open against No. 9 seed Iowa at Notre Dame on Sunday in the Raleigh region.
The message that day last spring called for a collective commitment.
"It wasn't a good feeling,'' Caldwell recalled of traveling back from Boulder, Colo., "The whole trip didn't feel good. It wasn't just after we lost. It was like something wasn't right, `we need to change something.' Luckily, we had it easy because it wasn't a lack of talent. Some teams just don't have the talent. Our team, pound for pound, is one of the most talented in the nation.''
And during a two-week span last spring when Cal was without a head coach, Caldwell, Clarendon and Pierre were among the leaders in keeping things going right on schedule. From extra shooting in the gym, to track workouts and sessions in the weight room, the Bears forged ahead unsure who would lead them.
"We had to be responsible, take responsibility for our own futures,'' Caldwell said. "We didn't just do it. We killed it. Like: `Whatever you do this time in April when we're doing spring workouts, make sure it's going to benefit you next March when we're in the tournament. Period.'''
Joanne Boyle had abruptly departed to coach Virginia and athletic director Sandy Barbour swiftly replaced her with Gottlieb, the former Cal top assistant and then-Santa Barbara head coach.
Gottlieb has been impressed how quickly her players bought into a new coaching style and took charge of how their season would go. Gottlieb and her coaches make it comfortable, too. They have an open-door policy for the close-knit group, and players regularly wander in to say hello throughout the day.
"I always say to people, `You have to be who you are and you have to go to your strengths and your comfort zone,' and to me that's relationships with the players and that is genuinely caring about their home life, what's going on at school, who they are as people,'' Gottlieb said. "I don't think you can try to put yourself in somebody else's mold. I don't think that makes me any less intense on the court or any less invested in the basketball part of it. There's no question I'm going to hug them in the hallway or we're going to laugh and joke about things, because for me nothing else would feel quite right.''
It was a thrill for Gottlieb to watch her players celebrate when Cal's name was called on Selection Monday. And, across the country, Gottlieb has her own loyal cheering section. Her 75-year-old father, Steve, brother Peter, sister Chris and brother-in-law Jim, and nephews Tommy and Alex, found a bar in Midtown Manhattan to watch the regular-season finale against Stanford.
The transition to a new coaching staff was a seamless one, especially considering Charmin Smith stayed on and new assistant Kai Felton had recruited many of the Bears players during her previous coaching stints at both Southern California and Oregon.
"We were really blessed that first of all it wasn't a bad split with Coach Boyle. Everyone was on good terms,'' Caldwell said. "Then the whole process, a lot of us were familiar with Coach Gottlieb before, so that helped.''
None of Cal's players have been in an NCAA tournament game before, yet Gottlieb has no sense they're satisfied with just getting there.
"I have an ultra-competitive side where I don't want this team just to be pretty good,'' Gottlieb said. "I want us to be Final Four, and I think that's what we have in us down the road.''
She has made it clear since Day 1 she plans to turn the program into a perennial national power much like Bay Area neighbor Stanford, a No. 1 seed in the tournament vying for its fifth straight Final Four trip.
"You have to lay down this foundation and then let the players run with it,'' Gottlieb said. "It has been more fun and more enjoyable than I could have hoped for. Did I think it had the potential to be special? Yes, but you can't put your fingers on that until you're in it. Every moment with them, even the disappointing moments, has felt right.''
Cal finished second to the Cardinal in the regular season and Pac-12 tournament. These Bears are trying to maintain a special tradition started by former stars from that Sweet Sixteen run - Alexis Gray-Lawson, Ashley Walker and Devanei Hampton.
Gottlieb has received text messages from several of those former Cal stars expressing their thanks and congratulations.
And the current team is made up of young women who consider themselves family. Star freshman Brittany Boyd arrived for practice Tuesday carrying a balloon and a box of Pierre's favorite candy bars for the guard's 21st birthday.
"We're happy we finally made the tournament. This is what we all came to Cal for,'' Pierre said. "To see that ('09) team make it all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, that inspired us to want to come here, it inspired us to want to keep the program at a high level and an elite program.''