SPOKANE, Wash. — In a sport where traditional powers typically reign supreme, there will be a first-timer in this year’s Women’s Final Four in New Orleans.
The California Golden Bears survived a 10-point deficit with less than seven minutes left in regulation to force overtime, where they finally turned back the Georgia Lady Bulldogs 65-62 in the Spokane Regional final Monday night at Spokane Arena.
It’s the first trip to the Women’s Final Four for a West Coast team other than Stanford since Long Beach State got there in 1988. The Golden Bears (32-3) will play Sunday in New Orleans Arena against the winner of Tuesday’s Oklahoma City Regional final between Tennessee and Louisville, which stunned overall No. 1 seed Baylor in Sunday’s regional semifinals.
Georgia, which was trying to reach the Women’s Final Four for the first time since 1999, finished 28-7.
The Southeastern Conference went 0-2 in regional finals Monday; Kentucky was crushed by Connecticut 83-53 in the Bridgeport Regional final. The SEC hasn’t had a team in the Women’s Final Four since LSU and Tennessee made it in 2008, the longest drought ever for the conference.
In its own way, Georgia’s loss may have been more crushing.
The Lady Bulldogs led 26-21 at halftime and, after Cal cut it to 37-36 on a jumper by Layshia Clarendon, Georgia went back to work offensively.
Georgia went on a 12-3 run to take its biggest lead of the game at 49-39 on a pair of free throws by Shacobia Barbee with 6:46 remaining. At that point, Clarendon was 6 of 11 from the field, and the rest of Cal’s team was 9 of 40.
But just as she did in a 73-63 win over LSU in Saturday’s regional semifinal, Clarendon led her team back from the brink.
The All-America guard made a jumper and a pair of free throws, and when Brittany Boyd rifled a pass underneath for Talia Caldwell, it was again a two-point Georgia lead at 50-48 with 3:31 remaining.
That’s when the game turned on the Lady Bulldogs. Jasmine James, Georgia’s point guard, committed her fourth foul with 2:57 left, sending Afure Jemerigbe to the line. Jemerigbe missed the front end of her one-and-one, but Caldwell tipped the rebound to herself and laid in a basket to tie the score at 50.
James then committed her fifth foul — her fourth in a span of less than five minutes — sending Boyd to the line. Her two free throws gave Cal a 52-50 lead with 2:20 to go.
Anne Marie Armstrong tied it at 52 with a putback basket with 8.5 seconds remaining. Clarendon came down and missed a 3-pointer to win with about three seconds left, sending the game to overtime.
In the extra period, Georgia struck first with a 3-pointer by Miller, but the Lady Bulldogs clearly missed James’ direction for their offense.
Cal took the lead for good at 56-55 with 3:39 left on a steal and drive by Boyd. Jemerigbe then drained a 3-pointer, and Clarendon followed a Boyd miss to give her team its biggest lead at 61-55 with 1:03 to go.
A pair of free throws by Barbee made it 61-57 Cal with 1:03 left. Though Cal was 10 of 20 at the line at that point, Georgia chose not to foul, and Clarendon made them pay with a jumper for a 63-57 lead with 37 seconds left.
Barbee made a basket with 15.6 seconds left, and Cal got a free throw from Reshanda Gray to lead 64-59 with 14.5 seconds left. Armstrong swished a 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left, then Georgia fouled Clarendon with 2.1 seconds to go.
Clarendon hit just one free throw, but a desperation midcourt heave by Barbee with a second left smacked harmlessly off the side of the backboard as the horn sounded, and Cal’s players rushed into each other’s arms in celebration.
Clarendon, the regional MVP, led the Bears with 25 points after scoring 19 against LSU. Jemerigbe added 14 points.
Barbee led Georgia with 14 points, followed by 12 for Armstrong and 11 for James.
Cal’s trip to New Orleans is a homecoming of sorts for athletic director Sandy Barbour. She served as Tulane’s athletic director from 1996 to 2000.