- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- It was all there on paper for Lindsay Gottlieb and her Cal Golden Bears. The old adage that the stat sheet doesn't tell the story didn't apply.
Every shortcoming, every mistake, every single way in which Cal lost its 10-point halftime lead and an extraordinary chance to play for the national title was typed, printed, copied and distributed in the box score.
The 19 turnovers. The Bears' 1-for-7 effort from the free-throw line. The 9-for-30 shooting in second half. Louisville's eight 3-pointers. And most painfully, the final score: Louisville 64, California 57.
Gottlieb told her team after the game to think about all of that for about two minutes.
"We can be disappointed not to be playing on Tuesday night because we really wanted to be playing on Tuesday night," Gottlieb said. "And I'm going to think about that for two minutes. And for the next 10,000 minutes I'm going to think about what this group did for the University of California. I will think about the legacy they left here."
Cal changed the dynamic of the women's game on the West Coast by breaking through to New Orleans. Gottlieb changed her stature as an up-and-comer, the Bears enhanced their appeal to the nation's best high school players and they forever altered expectations about what constitutes a great season.
None of that removes the immediate sting of Sunday night's defeat at New Orleans Arena.
Gottlieb may not be able to live with her own advice, and she admitted as much, joking that she might end up taking two minutes on each play that caused the slow second-half bleed that cost the Bears the biggest game they've ever played in.
But don't imagine the young Bears coach, who put faith and trust in the players she sent out on to the floor, is going to lose too many nights' sleep.
Because she knows what Cal accomplished by getting an opportunity to play on the second-to-last night of the season, and that is the salve on the pain that comes from defeat, from being 20 minutes of good basketball away from the national championship game.
"This was huge for us," Gottlieb said. "It was Cal basketball on display. We weren't perfect, we didn't play a good second half. But we belong on a stage like this."
That was the thing about Cal during this tournament run. The Bears were never perfect. They missed too many free throws, they let opposing teams back into games, gave up leads, had to scrap and scrape from behind to pull things out, needed overtime to win twice in five games. But what they did well got them a long way. And it got them to a double-digit halftime lead Sunday night.
Cal did what Cal does best in the first 20 minutes. The Bears were dominating the glass -- particularly the offensive side -- they were scoring inside and pushing the ball in transition. The Bears had Louisville on the ropes, leading 37-27 at halftime.
But the momentum swing was sudden. Cal opened the second half with two turnovers and Louisville scored on each one, slicing a 10-point deficit to five points in two possessions.
The Cardinals hit big 3-pointers -- Antonita Slaughter dropping 6-of-10 for the game -- clogged up the paint with Sara Hammond back in the game after she missed much of the first half in foul trouble, and started scoring and pressing on the other end.
Cal struggled to score, managing just nine field goals in the second half.
Louisville scored 11 points off Cal turnovers, taking its first lead of the second half with 3:40 to go.
"There was a stretch when they were throwing a lot of junk at us and 19 turnovers is high for us," Cal guard Layshia Clarendon said. "We just turned the ball over. We were getting kind of lost and they were making a lot of baskets, picking up momentum."
Clarendon did all she could for Cal. She finished with 17 points, including a 3-pointer to tie the game at 57-57 with 1:51 to go. She collected five rebounds, played every minute. She defended on the perimeter with everything she had, fought through multiple screens to stay in front of Louisville's best scorer, Shoni Schimmel, holding her to 4-of-13 shooting from the floor and only one 3-pointer.
Clarendon said she thought her team "panicked" in the final two minutes, something the Bears hadn't done to this point during the season.
After the game, Clarendon, who will be drafted into the WNBA next week and has surely improved her draft status with her impressive tournament run, talked to her huddled teammates.
"I told them, 'Don't hang your head for one second. Not for one second, because we've come too far, done too much,'" Clarendon said. "It's hard to let it go. It's going to hit you maybe now, maybe later on the plane, maybe when you get back. It's going to hurt definitely because we knew there were mistakes. It wasn't like we just played someone who is flat-out better and just literally beat us. We made a lot of mistakes ourselves."
But while the Cal locker room was quiet after the game, there were a few laughs, a few tears, and not a lot of devastation.
"They had us on our heels in the second half," Cal forward Gennifer Brandon said. "We were used to receiving the punch first and then coming back full throttle."
Bears sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd, who played with back spasms and jammed fingers, was mostly philosophical.
"We got outplayed in the second half," Boyd said. "I don't think we got tight. Our main focus was 20 more minutes, keep on pushing. They came out -- I don't know what their coach told them -- but they came out and hit every shot, made every screen and they just executed when they needed to."
Having the opportunity to play on the second-to-last night of the season is an accomplishment for any team. That is the salve on the pain that comes from Cal's defeat, from being 20 minutes of good basketball away from the national championship game.