Washington State stunned plenty of women’s basketball followers with a victory over 20th-ranked California Friday night, but the least surprised person in KeyArena seemed to be Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
“Washington State earned every bit of that win,” Gottlieb said after the seventh-seeded Cougars knocked off the second-seeded, 20th-ranked Bears 91-83 in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament.
“They coached better,” Gottlieb said. “They played better. They shot the ball better. They played better defense. They rebounded better.
“And,” Gottlieb stressed, “that’s not because we weren’t trying. I thought they came out and did an outstanding job. They’re a really good basketball team and they played like it today.”
The Cougars (17-15) improved to 4-5 against Top 25 teams. A win tonight in the semifinals (8:30, Pac-12 Networks) against Oregon State, which beat Utah 50-35 in the late game, would push WSU into the title game (Sunday at 6 p.m., ESPN) for the first time in school history. Another win also might earn the Cougars serious consideration for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1991.
The Cougars are 0-2 against OSU, which has won 10 in a row and held the Utes to 21 percent shooting from the field. Top-seeded, fourth-ranked Stanford (29-2) plays No. 5 seed USC (20-12) in the other semifinal at 6.
“Another step – survive and advance,” WSU coach June Daugherty said. “So we look forward to whoever we play tomorrow.”
The Cougars were 0-10 all-time in the conference tournament before going 5-2 the past three years. WSU is making its second appearance in the semifinals in three years.
“It shows how far this program has come since I’ve come here,” senior forward-guard Sage Romberg said. One night after scoring a tournament-record 107 points in their opener against Oregon, the Cougars engaged in another wide-open, crowd-pleasing contest. The 91 points rank fourth in tournament history.
“It seemed like the basket was really big for them,” hustling Cal forward Afure Jemerigbe said.
“I give props to Washington State,” Bears star Reshanda Gray said. “They came out and played a really good game, and I wish them the best.”
Sophomore guard Lia Galdeira played inspired basketball at both ends of the court while piling up game highs of 27 points and three steals for the Cougars. Galdeira is tied for third in tournament history with 59 points after just two games; the record is 71. She broke the record of 56 points in two consecutive games, set by Stanford’s Nicole Powell.
“Galdeira was just like, ‘I’m not going to let anybody stop me,’” Jemerigbe said.
Diminutive guard Tia Presley tacked on 19 points and a team-high seven rebounds for the Cougars. Romberg was good for 16 points, and Mariah Cooks sparked an impressive performance for WSU’s bench by producing 12 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
“They really exploited us with their face-up ‘4’ players, Romberg and Cooks,” Gottlieb said, “and their guards were terrific and they shot the ball well. I think that was the story more than anything else.”
Well, that and the fact the Cougars were still steaming about a late call last week in Berkeley that helped the Bears force overtime before downing WSU.
“We left Haas Pavilion with a bad taste in our mouth from that,” Daugherty said. “We felt like we let it get away. Unfinished business.
“That is something that fueled these guys the past week or so getting ready for the tournament. We wanted the second chance at it today, and we took advantage of it.”
Gray, who smoked the Cougars for career highs of 43 points and 16 rebounds in Berkeley, dealt with foul trouble and finished with 26 points and six rebounds. Cal’s other all-conference player, point guard Brittany Boyd, fouled out with 5 minutes, 48 seconds left and her team trailing by 11. Boyd had nine points and four assists.
“Boyd is one of the best players in the country,” Gottlieb said.
The Bears, who beat WSU in five consecutive games and 16 of the previous 18 meetings, might have been blown out if not for a timely effort by one of the best players in the country from a year ago.
Gennifer Flowers, a senior post who has had a troubled family life, missed a good chunk of the season for undisclosed personal reasons. The 2012-13 honorable mention All-America pick scored a season-high 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench.
“We didn’t get frustrated with the tremendous quality of play that their inside game brings with Gray and Brandon and on and on and on,” Daugherty said. “We tried to weather the storm, so to speak.”
The Cougars led 45-44 after a thrilling first half that featured nine ties and six lead changes. WSU led by 15 before California pulled within six, only to have Presley insert the dagger by nailing a 3-pointer with 1:24 to go.
“That was a total adrenalin rush for everybody,” Daugherty said. “The bench exploded.”
So did the crowd, a crimson-tinted bunch that totaled perhaps 3,000.
“Our fans were great,” Romberg said.
So were the Cougars.
Stanford struggled out of the gate and trailed 23-21 at the half before downing No. 9 seed Colorado 69-54. Chiney Ogwumike racked up 19 points and 11 rebounds for the Cardinal. Brittany Wilson led the Buffaloes (17-14) with 16 points, but she missed 15 of 20 shots . . . USC edged Arizona State 59-57. Cassie Harberts led the fifth-seeded Trojans (20-12) with 14 points. Kelsey Moos, a freshman out of Reardan (WA) High School, had 10 points and a game-high 11 rebounds for Arizona State (22-9) . . . Utah’s star forward, Michelle Plouffe, was held to 16 points on 4-for-17 shooting.
The Cougars have only two players from Washington – Presley from Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep and senior reserve Brandi Thomas from Elma High. California produced the most Cougars (three), and all but one of the Bears hails from California . . . The Cougars’ only previous semifinals appearance resulted in a 64-49 loss to California in 2012 . . . Announced attendance was 4,396 for the two night games and 3,382 for the two afternoon games . . . Brandon is the daughter of Greg Brandon, the 10th-round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics in 1984. Greg never played in the NBA, dying at 34 when he was shot by police after being mistaken for a robbery suspect.