Three seasons ago, I began following women's college basketball primarily as an extension of getting into the WNBA and a desire to better understand the full landscape of women's basketball from college to pro.
I had watched games prior to that point, but the colleges I attended weren't all that competitive on the national landscape and I almost completely ignored the game aside from teams showing up to play on campus ("Whoa - that point guard is good! What's her name again? Penicheiro?").
That year, I was a total blank slate and nearly every Pac-10 game offered something unique to watch for: every Pac-10 team had a player I had never heard of, Michael Cooper and Paul Westhead were both making the move from the WNBA to the Pac-10, and of course there was the Stanford Cardinal. Even in saying that I was trying to better understand what makes a WNBA, I had no idea how to spot one at that time simply because in being totally unfamiliar with the college game it was difficult to sort out the distinction between "WNBA prospects" and "great college players".
In that mindset, nearly any merely good performance I saw made me wonder whether a player had WNBA talent; the first truly great performance not only captured my attention but almost immediately made me a fan.
Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media (March 13, 2010, Pac-12 Tournament in Los Angeles).
On February 14, 2010, Alexis Gray-Lawson and the California Golden Bears came to Seattle to face the Washington Huskies in what ended being among the most dramatic individual performances I had seen in person to that point and possibly since.
Playing on a badly sprained ankle that had her teammates carrying her out of her locker room for the post-game interviews, Gray-Lawson had 35 points in 75-68 overtime win over the Huskies in a simply "unreal" display of scoring prowess - the 5'8" combo guard seemed to seek out the most difficult shots possible, scoring over double teams, hitting contested jumpers, and going in the paint to shoot over bigger players. Purely as a scoring performance from a guard clearly bothered by a sprained ankle, you're simply not going to see anything a whole lot better than that.
But that's the type of effort that Cal needed from Gray-Lawson to win games that year: their impressive recruiting class of seven 2009 Top 100 high school players, according to ESPN's Hoop Gurlz, wasn't quite ready to win on their own just yet.
"Hopefully by late-February you're a little bit more mature, but- yeah- we -, you know, we're this: this is us right now," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said back then. "And Lexi's a calming factor for us in that. A fifth year senior and she's the one who can take us through that and settle us down and get us a point when we need to and it's been crucial to have her."
While other freshmen around the nation were able to exert their will on the court from day one, this group clearly had a ways to go.
It seemed that when anyone other than Gray-Lawson had the ball a turnover wasn't all that far from occurring. Their clear strength, aside from the presence of Gray-Lawson, was rebounding but even that effort seemed to waver as UW actually won the rebounding battle. Eliza Pierre, by far the most energetic defender I had seen in the conference, had the tragic flaw of not being able to shoot, which limited her impact on the floor though never quite negating it.
But it was that combination of noticeable flaws and personality that made them stunningly easy to root for from the first time I watched them. The fact that I am a Berkeley native predisposed to rooting for Cal certainly helped, but the freshman unit on the floor that day in 2010 - Pierre, Gennifer Brandon, Talia Caldwell, Layshia Clarendon, and DeNesha Stallworth - had so much potential within that mix of personalities that they almost forced you to pay attention.
While a NCAA tournament bid would've been a nice way to send off Gray-Lawson, the promise of their WNIT run was that it would accelerate that maturation process. A California Golden Blogs post after the WNIT title game still seems to capture the hopefulness among Cal fans back then that was only reinforced by Gray-Lawson's faith in them.
"We have two McDonald's All-Americans coming in - Lindsey [Sherbert], Afure [Jemeriqbe]," Gray-Lawson said in an interview with Swish Appeal after being drafted by the Washington Mystics 30th overall in the 2010 WNBA draft. "I think they'll be fine next year - everybody's a little worried that, as far as leadership, who's going to step up. But I think they have enough leadership to know that when it's time to play they just come in and play every game like it's their last and I think they have a lot to prove this year. So I wish them the best and I think they'll do fine. They might be battling for first, second, and third in the Pac-10."
Photo by Kailas Images (January 16, 2010, Seattle, Washington).
Two seasons ago, the Golden Bears returned to Seattle without Gray-Lawson to bail them out and left with their season on the verge of collapse after entering the season with justifiably high expectations.
Each of Cal's youngsters had already established distinct, yet complimentary, identities for themselves. Brandon and 2010 Pac-10 All-Freshman selection Stallworth were already among the conference's top rebounders. Clarendon showed flashes of being able to lead the team as more of a scoring combo guard. And, of course, Pierre had already developed a reputation as one of the most fear-inducing defenders in the conference.
"She's a tough defender," said former Huskies point guard Sarah Morton with a sigh after playing Cal in Seattle in 2011. "I think she's one of the best defenders in the Pac-10, actually. She's crazy. She can get hands on everything. And she's kind of tricky about it because she looks small, but she's super athletic. So she's kind of deceptive in that way."
The challenge was bringing each of these talents, that had already established itself among their peers at their respective positions, together into a cohesive whole. Maybe they weren't going to compete for "first, second, and third" in the Pac-10, but they were certain to prove that they were a tournament caliber team, even if they ended up being snubbed.
And although many Cal fans will look back on that 2010-11 season and remember losing seven of eight games to end conference play as the collapse, the beginning of the end could easily be traced to their mid-January trip to Washington culminating with a January 16 loss to the Huskies in Seattle.
It wasn't necessarily the fact of their loss that stood out - road losses happen - but the way they managed to lose that game that really stood out. After an impressive start to the game, Cal lost their way and ended up losing 57-48.
Unfortunately the leadership that Gray-Lawson had so much faith in proved to be at least part of their undoing.
"We're not a team that's competing, we're not working hard, we don't play together," said Boyle after that game, who also remarked that it was the biggest challenge she had encountered as a coach. "I'm uncertain of what's going on. I'm there to help ‘em. And I don't think it's offenses and defenses. It's either you work hard like we do in spurts and you choose to do that for 40 minutes or we don't. And how to light a fire under them and make ‘em wanna do that day in and day out is my challenge right now."
Not only had that sophomore class not filled the leadership void that Gray-Lawson left behind, but their coach didn't seem to have an answer for how to take them from "lackadaisical and unfocused" to the point of realizing their potential.
And that loss looked even worse with context.
Cal had gone to Pullman and lost to the Washington State Cougars in the previous game, making it the first time in Boyle's career that they had been swept in Washington. Later, during the eight game tailspin at the end of the season, the Washington schools came to Haas Pavilion and both beat Cal again, marking the first time that the Bears had been swept by both of those schools since the 1997-98 season. Cal ultimately finished sixth in the conference and was ousted in the second round of the WNIT.
The season was, by any measure, a disaster.
Certainly looking back we could put the onus for Cal's 2010-11 season on the coaching staff, but part of the burden was on the players to make adjustments as well.
"It was just ourselves," said Caldwell when asked about what was said in the locker room after that game in Seattle, also adding that there were some things that she'd have to get into the gym and work on personally. "Just us not working hard. Us not taking pride in things. It was just us personally needing to think about what we need to do."
And the future that was once so bright seemed to be meeting a harsh reality rife with struggle: Stallworth transferred to play with the up-and-coming Kentucky Wildcats and Boyle left to fill the coaching vacancy with the Virginia Cavaliers.
It's difficult for potential to live in a void left by lost hope and as quickly as their talented recruiting class burst onto the scene it looked like Cal's bubble had burst.
Photo by USA Today Sports.
Last season, Cal was spared the treacherous trip to Seattle due to the scheduling format of the new Pac-12 conference but it's unlikely that the outcome in the Emerald City would've been so dramatic - Cal easily put those demons behind them with a 71-47 win over the Huskies at Haas Pavilion.
Leading the Bears to victory on that day was not one of the highly touted freshmen that supported Gray-Lawson in their last regular season victory against Washington, but a new face: freshman point guard Brittany Boyd, who recorded 14 points and 8 assists against the Huskies.
It would actually be misleading to say that Boyd saved the program or carried them to their Sweet 16 appearance last season. The addition of Boyd just helped all the pieces finally fall into place.
With Boyd's creativity in creating scoring opportunities for her teammates, Clarendon was able to move to her more natural position as a scorer and suddenly a team that couldn't seem to find any consistency on offense could at least lean on a dangerous transition attack. Pierre could come off the bench to add a defensive spark without her shooting being quite as much of a liability.
With a point guard to stabilize things offensively, Caldwell's scoring efficiency shot back up. Brandon returned to the lineup and continued to do work on the glass. Freshman Reshanda Gray came off the bench to both restore the depth lost with the departure of Stallworth and, unfortunately, lead the team in fouls.
Sure, the team wasn't without weaknesses: it was still painful to watch people stand five feet off of Pierre whenever she had the ball, daring her to take the chance of shooting, or threaten Boyd with the same. Nevertheless, they clearly emerged as the second best team in the conference by mid-season after taking Stanford to overtime at Maples Pavilion, which - to that point - was something that only the best of women's basketball seemed capable of.
Orchestrating this transformation was coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who probably didn't get as much recognition as she deserved as a first-year coach returning to the program that she helped Boyle build. And just as the previous year's disaster could be be traced to leadership, the 2011-12 team's success could be considered a direct result of the same, from Boyd's style of play that seemed to bring an element of fun to the unit to the posts continuing to dominate the boards with a determination that was nearly unmatched nationwide to Gottlieb's coaching style that allowed everything to flourish together.
The seeds of something special had been sown and, after a brief hiatus, there was once again plenty of reason for excitement.
Video: Cal's championship weekend in Seattle.
It's still too soon to even begin summarizing the 2012-13 season for Cal - the story is still unfolding and, most likely, far from complete.
Yet after years of wondering and worrying about their potential, that talented group of individuals that made such an impression as freshmen finally became a fully actualized unit this year.
This year, I had the opportunity to follow them more closely while returning to the Bay Area and it has been among the most exciting teams to watch from a purely analytical standpoint: while they've continued to be a dominant rebounding team, it's their balance that has defined them throughout the season.
Play man defense and they'll patiently find mismatches to exploit. Switch to zone to force them away from their interior strength and they'll patiently move the ball to force the defense to rotate and find a high percentage scoring opportunity. Try to speed up the game by pressing and you put Boyd in her comfort zone where she can single-handedly destroy a press, patiently or impatiently.
If all else fails, Clarendon has emerged as easily one of the best mid-range shooters in the nation who can find gaps in the defense and knock down shots.
And that patience has been the most impressive aspect of this team's maturation process. The lackadaisical and unfocused team that could neither figure out themselves nor the Huskies' defensive schemes is gone; this is now a team of committed players who were comfortable within their roles yet had the ability to step up when they needed to. They're a team that knows who they are and knows how to get what they want led by a coach who has given the team freedom within a structure that helps them become their best selves.
The post-season accolades that they've already received are simply a confirmation of the efforts that have already been validated by a conference title. Boyd, Brandon and Clarendon were All-Pac-12 selections and that Caldwell was left out after committing to improving herself after that difficult sophomore year has to be considered a snub. Boyd and Pierre were All-Defensive team selections. And, of course, Lindsay Gottlieb has won Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
But to fully appreciate what Cal has accomplished this year is to appreciate the journey they took to get to this point. That poise on the basketball court has also defined their demeanor off of it: having already paid their dues and hit lows that nobody would have wanted to predict for them, those valleys from a couple of seasons ago help them not only appreciate the top but also know what it takes not to go back.
"Sometimes I'm a little bit taken aback by it when I'm like wow we're number eight in the country," Clarendon said after Cal beat George Washington to get out to a 10-1 start this season, a program-best. "I know rankings are relative, but just kind of the struggle that we've been through, I think we appreciate it so much more, especially as us four that have been here, the seniors. Just seeing that process through that kind of underachieving a little bit, being WNIT Champions [freshman] year, and then last year beginning to pick up. So to see it coming into place is a really good feeling."
It could be easily argued that the adversity that these seniors have faced has only made them a stronger unit on the court. And perhaps even more interesting, we could say that this is the first season in their time at Cal that the 2009 recruiting class has truly taken control of the program's narrative: it wasn't about Gray-Lawson or her absence or about the arrival of a new player or coach. This was their year and they made the most of it.
As a basketball geek who's still learning the game, this team has been fascinating to watch in terms of how they balance the task of maximizing strengths and minimizing obvious weaknesses. As someone who came to women's college basketball at the same time this senior class arrived at Cal, this has been an emotional roller coaster that actually makes their accomplishments a bit more satisfying than they would have been had they just taken the nation by storm from the beginning.
And perhaps you can also understand why them clinching their share of the Pac-12 title in Washington was such a fitting coincidence to me.