LUBBOCK, Texas (CBS / AP) — Cal players think it’s cool that President Barack Obama’s bracket has the Golden Bears in the Final Four.
And that’s about as far as the Bears are going to take it. They are preparing to face 15th-seeded Fresno State on Saturday and perhaps regain their stride following a hiccup in the Pac-12 tournament two weeks ago that broke a 16-game win streak. Players say Obama’s pick won’t be a distraction for the second-seeded Bears.
“Our focus is completely on tomorrow’s game and all week long we worked on just getting better at the little stuff,” senior center Talia Caldwell said. “Just perfecting things we have done all year, so it’s nothing completely different.”
The two teams, whose campuses are 185 miles apart, traveled 1,400 miles to Lubbock to lead off first-round play in the NCAA tournament Saturday. Afterward, 10th-seeded South Florida takes on seventh-seeded Texas Tech, the host team that’s appearing in its 20th NCAA tournament two decades after bringing the national title to West Texas.
This is the second time Cal (28-3) and Fresno State (24-8) have played in the first round of the tournament. The Golden Bears won 70-47 in 2009.
Cal is coming off its best season in program history and is the only team not seeded first in the tournament that’s beaten one of the four top seeds. The Golden Bears shared the Pac-12 regular season title with Stanford and began their 16-game win streak by beating the Cardinal in Palo Alto, five days after falling to them in Berkeley.
Cal coach Lindsey Gottlieb sees what has made her team click this season and said she believes players will bring those keys to Saturday’s game.
“When you see us play it is really palpable and evident that this group loves each other and loves playing together,” she said. “I think we’re really versatile. We are fast and athletic, we have beasty post players and then the guard play as well is a problem for people.”
Fresno State’s challenge will be to keep California from getting the ball to those “beasty” players inside, while also minding the Bears prolific guards, Brittany Boyd and Layshia Clarendon, who together are averaging 28 points per game.
The Bulldogs, who won the conference tournament in their first season in the Mountain West, are playing in their sixth straight NCAA tournament. They also must tend to Caldwell (9.2 ppg) and Gennifer Brandon, who leads Cal with 11.2 rebounds. Fresno State coach Raegan Pebley said that daunting task will fall in large measure to her perimeter players.
“Who has stopped them this year?” she said. “Our focus is really how to stop how they get the ball. Putting our post defenders in a situation where they can be most successful.”
She is also counting on her team’s tenacity.
“I don’t think we’re going to change who we are now that we’re in the NCAA tournament just because we’re seeing Cal,” she said. “We’re going to still be us so we can be our most confident.”
The Lady Raiders are in the NCAA tournament for only the second time in coach Kristy Curry’s seven seasons at Texas Tech. They were tough to beat at home this season, going 14-3 this year.
Texas Tech (21-10) brings a three-game skid into its first round against South Florida (21-10). The Bulls are back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
Tech’s defense allowed opponents to make 40 percent of their field goals this season and there will be no day off against the Bulls. USF has a twin threat — sisters Andrea and Andrell Smith — who can put points on the board in a hurry (combined 30.3 ppg).
Texas Tech guard Monique Smalls said facing the Smiths will remind her of Big 12 guards like Oklahoma State’s Tiffany Bias or Oklahoma’s Aaryn Ellenberger.
“They are very, very quick and they love to get out to push the ball,” the senior point guard said. “They know where the other is. We’ve already faced that, so we’re all ready to come out and face that Saturday.”
The Bulls also have Inga Orekhova (12.2 ppg).
“We’re going to go as far as these three guys right here are going to take us, and that’s been our story all year,” Bulls coach Jose Fernandez said of the Smiths and Orekhova. “We got to make sure we take good shots. We love to shoot the three, look at our stats. That’s a big part of it. We can’t come down and take contested, quick shots.”
Curry thinks the two teams are very similar in guard play but believes the game could come down to post play. For the Lady Raiders, that’s Kelsi Baker (10.6 ppg) and Christine Hyde (9.5 ppg); Akila McDonald (3.7 ppg) and Alisia Jenkins (6.2 ppg) play in the post for the Bulls.
“Their post players are underrated,” Curry said. “Seems like when they need a play made both those post players step up.”
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