Cal appears poised to challenge Stanford for Pac-12 supremacy

Getty Images File PhotoCoach Lindsay Gottlieb

Getty Images File PhotoCoach Lindsay Gottlieb

A record-breaking season for the Cal women’s basketball team ended in agonizing defeat Sunday, but the Bears’ first Final Four appearance is just the first rung in a high ladder for Lindsay Gottlieb’s program.

Throughout the season, Gottlieb said one of her team’s goals was to “put Cal in the conversation of the most elite teams in the country.” Cal succeeded.

The Bears won a record 32 games, a share of the Pac-12 Conference title and even President Barack Obama recognized them as one of the country’s top teams in his presidential bracket.

As the Bears strutted their stuff on the big stage this week, coach Tara VanDerveer at Stanford must have experienced ambivalent ?feelings.

Year after year, Stanford’s success is under appreciated nationally because it rolls through the Pac-12 competition without picking up a scratch.

The Cardinal have won 13 straight conference championships, seven consecutive Pac-12 tournament titles and, prior to Cal’s 67-55 win at Maples Pavilion on Jan. 13, they had won 81 Pac-12 games in a row.      

The Cardinal make it look easy, so they don’t always get the credit they deserve. But Cal’s emergence as a national player is improving the conference’s reputation across the board, which will elevate Stanford’s national image if it can stay on top.

Having said that, the Bears’ rise is a threat to Stanford’s hegemony on the West Coast. Cal might be losing its heart and soul with the departure of Layshia Clarendon, but the team is returning plenty of depth up front with Gennifer Brandon and Reshanda Gray and in the backcourt with Brittany Boyd and Afure Jemerigbe.

Gottlieb is young, energetic and fun. She knows how to connect with young women. She’s all over Twitter and her team plays a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball.

With the exposure the Bears received this past week, she should have no problem luring some of the most talented athletes on the West Coast to Berkeley for years to come.

But repeating this year’s success won’t be easy.

The Bears needed to win two overtime games to get to the Final Four, and a couple of plays here or there could have punctured the balloon before the party in New Orleans got started. The college basketball season is a grind with plenty of booby traps along the way; just ask Baylor’s Brittney Griner.

Again, the problem with Stanford’s recent success is that it makes going to the Final Four look routine. Think about the Bears’ amazing run and then consider that they achieved what the Cardinal had done five years in a row prior to this season, a spectacular feat.

Asking the Bears to string together the type of dominance that the Cardinal has displayed over the last 31 years is unfair. Cal’s achievement this season really puts Stanford’s success into ?perspective.

But if this season told us anything, it’s that the Bay Area is now a hotbed for college women’s basketball and the Battle of the Bay promises to be one of the strongest rivalries in the country for quite some time.

Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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