For the first time in program history, the Cal women’s basketball team is tipping off a new season as defending Pac-12 Conference champions. The Bears will be tasked with trying to repeat with a handful of fresh faces.
No. 9 Cal will open the 2013-14 season against Long Beach State at Haas Pavilion on Friday in a familiar place, ranked among the nation’s top 10. But this year, Lindsay Gottlieb’s squad is trying to make a run at the Final Four with an ingredient they lacked last season: freshmen.
“This year, I come out of practice far more exhausted than before because I’m teaching something on every play,” Gottlieb said. “You’re either teaching someone how to take on a larger role or you’re teaching a freshman everything from a play to how to play.”
The Bears, who shared the 2012-13 Pac-12 regular-season title with Stanford, are attempting to follow up their historic season without leading scorer Layshia Clarendon, starting center Talia Caldwell and defensive specialist Eliza Pierre.
But they’re returning a roster loaded with talent and Gottlieb added a freshman class that major recruiting services ranked among the Top 20.
“Big shoes to fill,” Afure Jemerigbe said. “But I think anyone can score on our team, anyone can put up double digits.”
The Bears are expecting big things from junior point guard Brittany Boyd, an All-Pac-12 selection last season. Gottlieb said the dynamic point guard is hungry to grow.
“I tell her all the time, you’ve done things in your first two years that most people don’t do in their whole college careers, but she’s just scratching the surface of what she can do,” Gottlieb said. “She has worked incredibly hard — there’s no question that she’s in better shape than she’s ever been in.”
All-American forward Gennifer Brandon, who posted 19 double-doubles and set a Pac-12 single-game record for rebounds (26) is returning, as well. Brandon, however, had a metal rod placed in her shin during the offseason to compress a stress fracture and the Bears are unsure when she’ll join the lineup.
Reshanda Gray, who averaged 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds off the bench last season, will also contribute up front.
The core will be bolstered by the freshmen class, which includes forward Mercedes Jefflo, forward K.C. Waters, Belgian guard Hind Ben Abdelkader and forward Courtney Range.
“Range is going to be an amazing beast,” Jemerigbe said. “Overall, we have a really good class.”
The Bears also added transfers Brittany Shine from Florida and Kyra Dunn from Pittsburgh, who will join the team during the winter semester.
But the challenge for this year’s squad is remembering what it took to get to the Final Four.
“This team hasn’t won a game yet, this team hasn’t earned anything,” Gottlieb said. “We have to fight for who we want to be every single day.”