But to understand how it came to be that this group went from “underachievers” to “history-makers,” and to truly appreciate this Bear team’s accomplishment, we need to look back.
Their journey did not start this past October, when they set their goal to become “elite” and win championships. It did not begin when Gottlieb signed on to be their leader two years ago.
For five of them—seniors Talia Caldwell, Layshia Clarendon, Eliza Pierre, Tierra Rogers, and redshirt junior Gennifer Brandon—it all started over four years ago, when they were in high school, when they committed to become Golden Bears. As part of a seven-member recruiting class tabbed as the best in the nation, they were poised to take Cal to the next level. And why not? Between them, they had size, scoring, speed, and athleticism to spare.
But things did not go according to plans.
Tierra Rogers tragically lost her father to murder in January 2008. Then, less than two years later, before playing one minute for the Bears, Rogers discovered she had a heart condition, which ended her playing career.
Still, coming off a Sweet Sixteen NCAA berth and with the incoming freshmen, Cal entered the 2009 season ranked in the Top 20.
The team, despite all the talent, played poorly. Players did not seem to know their roles, and the ever-shifting line-ups did not help. The Bears often looked out of sorts, and they over-relied on senior Alexis Gray-Lawson.
Cal struggled in the non-conference, the very picture of inconsistency, pounding some teams while losing badly to others. Then came the huge upset loss, at home, to San Jose State, where the Bears imploded and frustrations came to the surface.
Head coach Joanne Boyle then changed up her starters, going with four freshmen and Gray Lawson. It became clear to anyone watching that the team dynamics were now a mess.
“We came in like little freshmen,” said Eliza Pierre in a recent interview. “’Oh, oh my god, Alexis Gray-Lawson, she’s going to score all the points for us. She’s going to take us where we need to go.’ I think we were looking for that leader to teach us how to be the next person, how to take on that role of continuing on the legacy of Cal. We kind of under… I don’t know how to say this in a nice way, but we didn’t perform well that year. It was a lot of things outside of playing basketball with the team.”
While Pierre stopped short of using the term, there was no question that the Bears did not meet expectations, that they underachieved.
The Bears did slightly better in the conference schedule, but still only managed a fourth place finish and missed the NCAA Tournament. Cal made a late push and won the 2010 WNIT.
But the victory only temporarily masked the problems. In the off-season, seldom-used senior Rachelle Federico was forced into the position of leading the team by herself.
But as the 2010-11 season began, it became clear that Cal hadn’t done enough to correct their issues. The Bears started 8-3, a good enough record, but the losses were all to teams less talented than they were. Again, the young Bears had no cohesiveness; they were not a team. Compounding the challenge was the fact that forward Gennifer Brandon would miss the season with an injury.
“It’s even worse, because now Alexis is gone, now Tasha is gone,” recalled Pierre. “Now who do we really look to? Still, we were just lost as a team. And we get Mikayla, Afure, Avigiel, Sherb, who come in, and they’re looking for a leader, and they didn’t have one, because we didn’t have one. We didn’t know. And I think it was Mooch who tried her best to lead the group. But it was hard; it’s hard to lead 12 people when it’s only one, you know? And again we had a disappointing season, and it was still because of the connection on the court, arguing about the little things on the court, like a bad pass.
Conference season began, and reality smacked the Bears in the face, in the form of the Stanford Cardinal, who pounded Cal by 31. Avigiel Cohen was devastated with what she saw. Despite the fact that she was only a freshman, and one out with an injury at that, Cohen tried to rally the team.
“We had a team meeting, and I said everything I felt like saying to all the girls,” said Cohen. “Like, ‘How can it be that we are not a team? I don't ever remember being on a team where we are not sisters. We don't have the back of each other. The whole point of college athletics is that you have your team. That is something so unique, and I don't feel we have it here. The chemistry off the court is so important, and you build championships in the locker room, and what kind of relationship do we have with each other?’ I said those kinds of stuff, because when I played for a team, what was the most important thing for me was the connection, you know? And I felt we did not have that, and it showed on the court. We don't play as a team.”
Cal righted itself temporarily, winning the next two games.
But team chemistry is not something you can quick-fix. It takes more than an occasional inspirational speech. It is built over time, off the court, in the off-season. It is the thing that holds individuals together when things get tough.
When Cal lost again, things fell apart. A heartbreaking defeat to Arizona State, when the Bears gave up a three with 0.1 second to go, put Cal in a spiral. They would lose six in a row, sometimes looking like they were going through the motions, and it was clear that Boyle had lost the team.
“After the ASU game, the big loss, we just never recuperated,” said Clarendon. “That was the big thing, after that loss, we never bounced back from that.”
“I came to some of the games, and they were losing,” said Brittany Boyd, who at the time was a Cal recruit. “I was like, ‘What’s going on? There was so much talent!’”
Cal played out the string, even returning to the WNIT for an embarrassing second-round blow-out loss to future Pac-12 opponent Colorado.
The fallout was immediate. Leading scorer DeNesha Stallworth, the top recruit from that heralded 2009 class, transferred to Kentucky. Soon after, head coach Joanne Boyle also exited, moving to take over Virginia. Rumors swirled about who would transfer next.
The Cal program, which Boyle and company had built into relevance, was on a precipice and barely hanging on.
Then came the turning point.
While Athletic Director Sandy Barbour searched for a new head coach, the Bears got to work. Assistant Coach Charmin Smith, the only remaining coach on the staff, held the team together. But more important, the players held each other tight.
Instead of leaving, Caldwell, Clarendon, and Pierre finally embraced their leadership role. They knew the future of Cal basketball was in their hands.
“A lot of people could have left,” said Clarendon. “But we all got together and said, ‘We want to stay here. We want to be here. And let’s just see what happens with the new coaching staff.’ And that definitely brought us closer.”
While they waited to find out who their new coach would be, the players pushed themselves harder than ever before with their off-season work. In order to build stronger connections, the Bears began to hang out off the court. The veterans made a concerted effort to take the freshmen under their wings. They reached out to committed recruits and encouraged them to still consider Cal.
“We just matured and realized that it’s not so much about, well this person didn’t do this or this player didn’t do that, but what could you do on your own?” said Caldwell. “We didn’t have a coach for a month, so it was, well, we’re here, Hank is here, what are we going to do? It didn’t matter about A, B, and C, it was, what am I called to do, what are my responsibilities? It started in the Spring. We still had to go hard the track; we still had to deal with Hank. Period. That was our mentality of like, regardless of who’s coaching us, who we’re playing, where we’re playing, what are we doing to be the best we could be, as players. So that’s where it started, as players.”
Then Lindsay Gottlieb returned to Cal as the Bears’ head coach.
Much has been made about Gottlieb’s advantage of already being familiar with Cal and its players. But the truth is Gottlieb still needed to earn their trust, to prove herself.
“Coming in as a new head coach, even though it's a place I'm familiar with, getting buy-in and trust is one of the most important things right off the bat, with the players, with the community, with the administration in this building,” said Gottlieb.
She met with each player individually and got to know them as people, not just players.
“I just listened a lot, and we talked, and it became apparent to me that they want a good chemistry amongst the team, and they wanted really strong relationships with their coaches that would transcend whatever was going on on the court that day,” said Gottlieb. “So I listened, and I think some of that is in my nature anyway, but I realized that was something that we had to work on, actively work on that stuff.”
“We were just struggling so bad, I think, that we just wanted something to believe in,” said Clarendon. “That is what is awesome about Lindsay, she just came in and said `Look, follow me, I will lead the way. Just come to practice, work hard, bring energy, just be yourselves, I will worry about the rest.'”
Gottlieb’s style was a perfect fit for the players who yearned for a positive atmosphere.
“I think female student-athletes respond better to the positive,” said Gottlieb. “You try to have the pulse of the team and find out what they need at that moment. But it's always rooted in a place of respect for them as human beings, compassion, and trying to do the right thing.”
But the team’s newfound togetherness was tested immediately. In August 2011, Eliza Pierre’s brother was shot and killed. A distraught Pierre considered leaving the team. But ultimately, it was the team that helped Pierre to get through her grief.
“Eventually, one day, I was just in the locker room, and I don’t think I had laughed in a long time,” said Pierre. “And I was sitting in the locker room, and the team started playing music, just doing what they were usually doing on a regular day, and Brittany [Boyd] did something so hilarious that I couldn’t do anything but laugh. I just started cracking up laughing. And I was like, ‘This is my team. This is who I’m with. This is where I’m going to be. This is family. I’m still here with family.’ They may not be my blood family, but they are still family.”
Over the last two years, the transformation on the team has been remarkable.
“We have an unbelievable relationship off the court,” said Rogers. “We are the best of friends. We always hang out. Everybody has their struggle, their individual thing that they have going on. When you get to know somebody, you see the beauty in that person. It’s something special. We’re lifelong friends."
“There’s been a tremendous change from the team I was a part of freshman year and the team right now,” said Cohen. “It’s more than a team. We’re each other’s sisters. Some people sometimes overuse the words, ‘I love you.’ For our team, it’s, ‘I would die for you; I would do anything for you.’ We’re going to be friends and sisters forever. I know that no matter what, I can count on anyone on this team, twenty-four seven.”
Gottlieb knew right away that she had a lot of talent on her hands, but that she needed to foster their confidence and belief. She installed a system that emphasized speed and quickness, and then set them loose.
“I've played to their strengths and said, `We're good at a lot of things; let's do that and let's get better at whatever else we need to,'” said Gottlieb. “We’re really good at playing in space. So you set up a structure and then you let them make plays.”
The same could be said for Gottlieb’s work in nurturing the team’s emerging leadership. She struck the balance between structure and freedom, framing for the players what was needed, then working with who they were, and allowing them the space to chart their own growth. Clarendon, for example, was never forced to become a loud, demonstrative leader. Yet she surely found her voice and became the leader the Bears needed, all the same.
“Layshia is a constant constant force,” said Mikayla Lyles. “She can say, ‘The sky is green,’ and you believe her. She just grabs your attention and makes you believe in the unbelievable. She’s the foundation for this team. She keeps us all together.”
“Her leadership, we needed her, so she had to grow up, from the personality she had to who she is today,” said Rogers.
But perhaps Gottlieb’s greatest strength has been her ability to get her team to commit to the idea of team, that the team’s success is tantamount. She made sure that players knew their roles, and that they had no choice but to buy in.
“There are players in this locker room that are some of the best in the country,” said Gottlieb. “I think what I did is, I asked them to say, `Make the team and the California in front of your chest the most important thing.' And they've done that.”
She showed her players that she cared about each and every one of them as people, no matter how many minutes they played or how many shots they hit.
“From day one, her conviction and what she was saying, it was believable and it grabbed you from day one,” said Mikayla Lyles. “She said, ‘I’m going to take all of you and embrace everything you have to offer.’ And she has stuck to her word. Not only did she set that tone from the basketball aspect, but she opened it up, in a personal level, just a family atmosphere. She’s been very adamant that this is a family. It feels good to be a part of a huge family that is chasing one dream.”
“Some coaches are more like, ‘Stretch like this, wear your uniforms, your hair, no tattoos!’” said Clarendon. “And Lindsay is like, ’Be who you are. I’m going to love you. I’m going to embrace every single one of you.’ And she’s going to fight for you regardless if you play two minutes, or if you score 30 points. That’s how Mikayla Lyles can sit on the bench and know, ‘I might not get to play in this game, but I know Lindsay is going to fight for my internship. She’s going to fight for me just as much as she does for Layshia to be an All-American.’ That’s the trust and relationships that she has built with all of us.”
"If you start with a trust and a foundation that they know I love them and care about them as people, then you build up the ability to say, `Hey, we needed to be better on that play,'” Said Gottlieb. “Obviously I have to be critical at times and have to tell us when we're not good enough. But if they believe that I know that they're capable of things even more than they even know, on and off the court, and that they matter to me as people, then sure, I think they're okay to hear, `Sprint back faster,' and things like that. But absolutely the care for the student-athlete has to be the No. 1 thing, and I feel like these kids know that even when I'm mad at them."
In 2011-12, the Bears’ newfound confidence and cohesiveness paid dividends as Cal went 25-10, finished second in the Pac-12, made the NCAA Tournament, and capped their season with a hard-fought loss in the second round to Notre Dame.
This season, they picked up where they left off and further elevated their game. They defeated Stanford at Maples, breaking the Cardinal’s 81-game conference win streak. The Bears became ensconced in the top 10 and edged into the national conversation of the top teams in the country. They set numerous program bests en route to their current position, 32-3, Pac-12 co-champion, and Final Four participant.
Along the way, the Bears’ togetherness has now become their calling card. Instead of falling apart or pointing fingers, they draw strength from each other when things go wrong or get difficult. They believe that the commitment to one another is the very reason they have managed to pull out so many close games, including overtime victories over South Florida and Georgia in the NCAA Tournament.They have developed a mental toughness.
"I think it is incredibly tangible, the belief and faith they have in each other,” said Gottlieb. “I've never been around a group that so genuinely believes we're going to get it done, that believes in the person next to them. We have a group that just would do anything for the person next to them and has such a strong bond on and off the court that it's really fun to be around.”
“I don't think I could have imagined it, but with a little belief you can end up a long way," said Clarendon.
In Spokane, after the thrilling victory over Georgia that sent them to the Final Four, after the rush onto the court, the crashing into each other’s arms and rolling on the floor, the rugby scrum of joy and tears. After the donning of hats, the trophy presentation, the impromptu dance routine.
After all that, there was still one more thing for the Bears to do.
As the stadium emptied, the Cal faithful who had made the trip to Spokane huddled together, still basking in the glow of watching a dream become reality. They cheered and hooted as Bears marched one by one up the ladder to take part in time-honored ceremony of cutting down the nets.
Some looked confused, not sure of the proper way to secure their piece of twine. Others simply snipped away, exuberance overcoming any need for technique.
In the procession, there were Bears who have cut down nets before, just three years ago. Caldwell, Clarendon, Pierre, Rogers, and Brandon did it as Cal won the WNIT Championship in 2010. But of course, this time was different. Not only was it a much grander stage and a greater accomplishment to win the Spokane Region, but also so much has happened in between.
Those same players, who came in with the weight of expectations, suffered through two seasons of mediocrity and self-doubt. But two years ago, they banded together, and behind the leadership of their new coach Lindsay Gottlieb, changed their course of their destinies and that of Cal basketball.
It was just a few steps up that ladder, but each rung represented the huge strides each player has made individually and as a team to bring Cal to new heights.
A few days later, a reflective Gottlieb recalled a conversation she had with Tierra Rogers earlier this year. Sitting side by side at practice, Rogers had turned to her coach.
“She said, ‘Coach, this team is special,’” said Gottlieb. “I said, ‘I know, T.’ And we didn't really have to say much more.”
Here are links to extended Cal women's basketball interviews that have appeared during hte past couple of years:
Eliza Pierre, part 1
Eliza Pierre, part 2