SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — Layshia Clarendon moved directly to the front, the first to get her hands on the regional championship trophy. Rightfully so, after getting California somewhere they’ve never gone before: the Final Four.
“(Layshia) is the glue,” Cal’s Afure Jemerigbe said. “She’s always poised. She is always there.”
Clarendon scored 17 of her 25 points in the second half and overtime, and California rallied from down 10 with less than 7 minutes left to beat Georgia 65-62 in the Spokane Regional final on Monday night and advance to the national semifinals for the first time in school history.
Clarendon and the second-seeded Golden Bears became the first team from the western U.S. other than Stanford to reach the Final Four since Long Beach State in 1988. They did it with a gritty rally down the stretch and big shots by Clarendon, Jemerigbe and Talia Caldwell.
During that 25-year span, eight different programs in the West have reached the regional finals. But whether it was Long Beach State, Washington, USC, UCLA, Colorado, Utah, Arizona State or Gonzaga, they all came up one game short — sometimes at the hands of Stanford — of advancing.
California, and second-year coach Lindsay Gottlieb, finally broke the string. Gottlieb threw her arms in the air when Shacobia Barbee’s desperation half-court shot at the buzzer bounced off the backboard and wore a huge grin throughout the postgame celebration.
“I knew this was possible. I believed more in this group than anyone ever and this is still better than my wildest dreams,” Gottlieb said.
“So many thing go into it and then you have to get a little lucky and then things have to go right, so I’m really conscious of this is special.”
California (32-3) was the selection of President Obama to win the Spokane Regional when he filled out his NCAA women’s tournament bracket. The Golden Bears proved him right. But that wasn’t the only motivation of this relaxed, fun group that danced on the court and cut down the nets and for at least this season taken the mantle of being the best out West.
“Beignets. We have been joking about that the whole time,” Clarendon said. “We’re going to New Orleans and we’re going to get beignets.”
Jemerigbe finished with 14 and Caldwell added 10, with six coming in the final 3:30 of regulation and in overtime. Barbee led Georgia with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“I don’t think the words can even explain right now. Disappointed, hurt,” said Georgia’s Jasmine James, who had 11 points before fouling out. “To have something that you’ve always wanted to be able to do, just be so close, and to end up getting outworked for it, it hurts.”
It didn’t look like another game awaited the Golden Bears, not trailing 49-39 with 6:46 left after Barbee hit a pair of free throws. The Bears got back into the game by halftime overcoming a horrible shooting start, but each run early in the second half was rebuffed by the Lady Bulldogs. Cal missed 18 of its first 19 shots to start the game.
Finally Cal had an answer. Jemerigbe hit her first 3-pointer after missing her previous six attempts. Clarendon scored four straight points and Caldwell scored in the paint. Caldwell then rebounded Jemerigbe’s missed free throw and scored to pull Cal even at 50-all.
Tiaria Griffin missed a 3 for Georgia and Cal’s Brittany Boyd was fouled driving to the rim by James, her fifth foul, leaving Georgia without its floor leader. Boyd hit both free throws and Cal had its first lead since 17-16.
Not having James on the floor showed immediately as Georgia turned it over on its next two possession, helped by a pair of blocked shots by Jemerigbe, the second with 51 seconds left. But the Bears’ free throw struggles that nearly cost them in the second round against South Florida returned when Jemerigbe missed the front-end of a 1-and-1 with 27 seconds left. Griffin missed a 3 for Georgia, but Anne Marie Armstrong got the offensive rebound and scored with 8.5 seconds left in regulation to force the extra session. It was Georgia’s only field goal over the final 7:45.
“Our whole season has prepped us well for this night,” Caldwell said. “… Our team’s been there, we have done that, so we knew what we needed to get done.”
Georgia went up 55-52 when Khaalidah Miller hit a 3 to start overtime, but the Bears took command. Jemerigbe hit a 3-pointer with 2:48 left in overtime to give California a 59-55 lead and Clarendon later added a rebound putback for a 61-55 advantage with 1:26 remaining.
Barbee hit a pair of free throws with 1:03 left, but instead of fouling, Georgia chose to play defense. Clarendon made them pay, spinning away from Barbee and hitting a 15-footer with 37.9 seconds left for a 63-57 lead.
Georgia got within 64-62, but Clarendon split free throws with 2.1 seconds left and Barbee’s desperation shot was off. The loss ended Georgia coach Andy Landers’ hope of reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1999. Georgia last reached the regional finals in 2004.
Now it’s an opportunity for Gottlieb and the Golden Bears. With Baylor out of the picture, California will play either Tennessee or Louisville in the national semifinals.
“Tennessee or Louisville will have earned their way to the Final Four,” Gottlieb said. “And it absolutely will be a challenge and we’re excited to play them.”
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.