Sitting with her hands neatly folded in her lap, Nikki Caldwell skimmed a one-page stat sheet for California filled with names she courted during her three-year tenure at UCLA.
Glancing up, the LSU women’s basketball coach lobbed a question to assistant Tony Perotti, who was hunched over in a chair near the door to a fifth-floor conference room in the athletic administration building.
“Tony, you remember recruiting Reshanda Gray?” Caldwell said.
Perotti only smirked, and Caldwell peered down and ticked off names: Gray, guard Layshia Clarendon, forward Gennifer Brandon, forward Talia Caldwell, guard Afure Jemerigbe and forward Justine Hartman.
All told, Caldwell made overtures to all but four players now suiting up for No. 2 seed Cal (30-3), which faces sixth-seeded LSU (22-11) in the NCAA tournament’s Spokane Regional semifinals at 10:32 p.m. Saturday in Spokane, Wash.
And it’s not solely the Golden Bears players, either. Second-year Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb spent three seasons heading up UC-Santa Barabra, a 97-mile commute from Los Angeles, and faced off against Caldwell and UCLA twice before returning to Berkeley to replace mentor Joanne Boyle after leading the Gauchos to a pair of Big West Conference titles.
Naturally, Gottlieb and Caldwell bumped into each other working the fertile recruiting trail along the west coast.
“They were everywhere we were,” Caldwell said. “You knew that she had an eye for talent, and her ability to recruit and bring in talent is only to continue to grow that program.”
Gottlieb was equally complimentary — but on a subject entirely unrelated to what will transpire on the floor.
“(My players) know their coach is going to be outdressed,” Gottlieb said. “I’ve lost the fashion battle already.”
Fashion aside, Gottlieb, a 35-year-old Brown alum and native of Scarsdale, N.Y., has Cal closing ground on nearby rival and Pac-12 Conference juggernaut Stanford, which is the top seed in the region and vying for a sixth consecutive Final Four trip.
Last season, Cal notched a respectable 25-10 record and a second-place finish in the Pac-12, albeit five games back of the first-place Cardinal, as the program made its first NCAA tournament trip since 2009. National runner-up Notre Dame used an 8-2 run after halftime to pull away for a 73-62, second-round victory.
The Golden Bears’ run nearly ended in the same spot this season. Holding a 10-point lead entering the final minute, Cal allowed No. 10 seed South Florida to rally, aided in part by the Golden Bears hitting just 3 of 11 free throws down the stretch. Fouling 3-point shooters twice in the last 12 seconds almost was the death knell, too.
Only 0.7 seconds were left in regulation when Boyd fouled the Bulls’ Inga Orekhova on the left wing when she tried to close out but ran into the guard as she lofted a shot toward the rim. Orekhova hit all three free throws to force overtime before Cal eked out an 82-78 victory.
But the scare only reinforced a central theme reiterated by Gottlieb.
“Play till someone beats us, till someone literally shuts our team down,” Clarendon said. “When that’s our goal, everything else will kind of line up.”
And what about any familiarity with Caldwell from her days in Westwood? How might that factor in?
“They’re going to be well coached,” Clarendon said. “They’re going to be defensive-oriented. They play zone, and maybe they press. I think we’re less worried about how she coached them at UCLA than what’s their game plan now.”
The Bears returned their entire starting lineup this season, along with key reserves in Hartman, a 6-2 sophomore, and junior guard Mikayla Lyles.
The names listed by Caldwell? They’re the nucleus that the Bears, who might have been a No. 1 seed had they claimed the Pac-12 tournament crown, will rely upon Saturday at Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena.
Clarendon, a 5-9 senior, spurs the Bears with 15.6 points per game as a two-time All-Pac-12 selection — and as a future WNBA draft selection with an advanced mid-range game.
“That’s her bread and butter, but she has the ability to knock down the 3 ball,” Caldwell said. “She has a lot of versatility.”
It’s a skill set that mimics that of LSU’s Adrienne Webb, who said the biggest factor working out of a matchup zone will be the trusted standby of any scheme: Deny Clarendon on the catch, or play tight enough to be under her to contest as she leaves the floor on the release.
“You can’t really say, ‘OK, she’s not going to get her shot off,’ ” Webb said. “She’s going to get a few of them. You have to minimize her touches and take her out of her game by making it contested and not a wide-open shot.”
Yet the Bears are well-suited to corral any errant shots, ranking first in the Pac-12 in rebounding at 44.6 per game and a staggering plus-11.6 margin.
“We’ve just got to control those touches,” LSU junior forward Theresa Plaisance said. “Those second shots give them chances to score. If we control second-chance points, that gives us more chances.”
That’s where Brandon, a 6-2 junior averaging 11.3 rebounds, and Caldwell, a 6-3 center, factor in for Gottlieb. Combined, the duo snares roughly nine offensive rebounds per game, with Caldwell generating the bulk of her 9.2 points on second-chance opportunities.
“This is the most balanced team I’ve ever played on,” Clarendon said. “Take me away, play box-and-1 and deal with Rashonda Gray and Gen Brandon on the boards. You can’t stop one of us, because we have so many weapons.”
And Caldwell, more than anyone, is in position to know the exact nature of the threat.
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