BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) - Lindsay Gottlieb looked to her left at seniors Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray, poised to go high in next month’s WNBA draft, and wondered why it ended so soon.
California figured it might have the program’s second Final Four team, or at the least some Sweet 16 swagger.
A 6-foot-7 center from Texas changed all that with one impressive performance in the paint.
Imani McGee-Stafford had 20 points and 11 rebounds while creating a daunting mismatch inside, leading the fifth-seeded Longhorns past No. 4 seed Cal 73-70 on Sunday night for a berth in next weekend’s Albany Regional.
“I did think this would be a year for some championships, or some celebrating,” Gottlieb said. “It turned out to be more of a year of almosts. But sometimes when you don’t get exactly what you want, you learn really important things along the way.”
Between McGee-Stafford’s imposing presence alongside 6-5 Kelsey Lang in the paint and a cast of scrappy guards jumping in the passing lanes and wreaking havoc, Texas did everything on both ends of the floor to return to the regional semifinals for the first time in 11 years.
Freshman Brooke McCarty scored twice on driving layups down the stretch on the way to 16 points off the bench, and Texas pushed the pace to force Cal into bad decisions.
A year after losing a tough second-round game on Maryland’s home floor, the Longhorns insisted they would have no problem taking on the Golden Bears with another feisty home crowd against them.
Now, they’re headed to the Albany Regional and a potential date with two-time defending champion Connecticut.
For Gottlieb, seeing Boyd and Gray bid farewell brought her to tears.
“What a ride with these two young women here, they’re ready for the next thing,” she said. “They’ve taken me on the ride of my life. I have zero regrets.”
Cal’s Mercedes Jefflo scored with 1:30 remaining to cut the Texas lead to 64-60 before Lang answered on the other end.
“We were just trying to keep pushing,” McGee-Stafford said.
Lang added 14 points as Texas (24-10) took another impressive step under third-year coach Karen Aston.
Jefflo scored 22 points for Cal (24-10) on a night Pac-12 Player of the Year Gray fouled out with 2:35 remaining and seven points in her final collegiate game.
Boyd had 17 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds, just missing the triple-double while playing her last college game in her hometown before friends and family.
“Words, feelings, actions can’t described how blessed I am,” Boyd said.
Texas began the second half with a 12-0 run, getting baskets from six different players, and forced eight turnovers as Cal missed its initial seven shots after the break and hurt its chances by not taking care of the ball.
Each time the Golden Bears threatened to get right back in it, McCarty, McGee-Stafford and Texas took charge with a big shot or defensive stop - or steal.
Jefflo pulled Cal within 45-42 on a 3-pointer with 10:22 to go but had the ball stolen the next time down that led to an easy layup by McCarty.
“She was a sparkplug in the Western Kentucky game and she was a sparkplug today,” Boyd said. “She did her job.”
Gottlieb used a timeout with 14:01 left, and she and Boyd could be seen yelling in the huddle. Courtney Range scored the Bears’ first basket with 13:42 remaining.
Texas smothered Cal’s posts in the paint and kept pressure on the perimeter.
“Their stat sheet looks the way we wanted ours to look,” Gottlieb said. “They did not let us get anything easy.”
The slow start in the second half did in Cal, which credited Texas’ game plan for taking the Bears out of what they like to do, and Gottlieb called it “the difference in the game.”
“We were being too lazy with our passes,” Boyd said. “We just weren’t taking care of the ball.”
Texas: The Longhorns are headed to their 12th Sweet Sixteen. … Four players had at least two steals, and Texas had six of its nine total in the first half. … The Longhorns reached the regional semifinals as a fifth seed for the first time.
Cal: The Bears missed reaching their third Sweet Sixteen in program history and second in three seasons after a run to their first Final Four two years ago. … Fourth-year coach Gottlieb is 7-4 in the NCAA Tournament at Cal. … The Bears trail the overall series with Texas 5-2. … Gray, coming off a 22-point, nine-rebound outing in the opener Friday against Wichita State, played 19 minutes.
Texas: Advances to the Albany Regional
Cal: Season over
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