Cal gives home crowd a show

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Many of the connections between Cal seniors Reshanda Gray and Brittany Boyd are unspoken.

When you go to a Final Four with a person, spend practically every moment with them for four years, succeed and fail on the same days, what is there to say, really, that hasn't been said?

The Bears "Cornflakes and Milk," as they were dubbed in Berkeley, California, long ago, aren't going to waste the precious moments they have left in their college basketball careers pumping each other up or reminding one another what's at stake.

Gray and Boyd are pointing all that urgency and all that experience at the youngsters.

These Bears are anchored by their experience and buoyed by their youth, and that was never more evident than on Friday evening at Haas Pavilion, where fourth-seeded Cal took its home floor in an NCAA tournament game for the first time in more than 20 years and impressively nailed down a 78-66 win over 13-seed Wichita State in the first round.

Cal (24-9) moves on to face fifth-seeded Texas (23-10) Sunday night in the second round. Texas held on tight to stave off the upset from Western Kentucky 66-64.

It was a box score that made head coach Lindsay Gottlieb beam: five players in double figures, led by Gray's 22-point effort; four players with at least six rebounds; 17 assists on 28 baskets; the highest shooting percentage since Dec. 29; the most points in a game since Jan. 31. And those youngsters, they were stellar.

Sophomore guard Mercedes Jefflo finished with 14 points, and freshmen Mikayla Cowling and Gabby Green each ended with 11. The three of them accounted for 36 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

"We learned that our young ones are ready," Gottlieb said. "It's different to think it's happening than it is to see it happening."

Boyd had what might be considered a quiet game with 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists, but she and Gray had done perhaps their most important work in the days leading up to the game.

"Every day at practice, they go hard at us," Green said. "They push us to a higher level, but they went ever harder this week. They definitely went to another level. They beat us up a little, but that's OK."

Boyd said she was "excited" to see her teammates step up on the big stage.

"We've known we were capable of this, and we are finally showing it," Boyd said.

Gray laughed and said she is glad her young teammates are "coachable."

"They do whatever we say," Gray said.

And what did the Bears seniors say this week?

"The main thing they need to understand is stay consistent," Boyd said early in the week. "We are working on picking the young ones up."

It wasn't long ago that Boyd and Gray were the young ones, looking to players such as Layshia Clarendon, Eliza Pierre and Talia Caldwell, the ones who led the Bears to the Final Four in 2013.

"We didn't have to worry about any of that," Boyd said. "We just got to show up and play. We followed behind them. But I've been working on being a leader all season, and I am feeling good about it. I feel like we are playing some of our best basketball of the season right now."

Friday night's effort was certainly evidence of that. Cal blitzed a Wichita State team that prides itself on defense. Cal's 78 points were the most the Shockers gave up all season.

The Bears made it difficult for Wichita State to "gamble," as Shockers coach Jody Adams said.

"Their role players stepped up and knocked down shots; credit to them," Adams said.

Gottlieb said having Boyd and Gray on the floor leaves her feeling confident.

"Tonight, Reshanda missed a couple of her first shots and she looks at me and says, 'I gotta make that.' She's not complaining about contact or making excuses, and it just makes everyone feel confident on our entire team."

It is Gray who might have the biggest chore of Sunday's second-round game against Texas, dealing inside with Texas' towering twosome of Imani McGee-Stafford and Kelsey Lang. McGee-Stafford, at 6-foot-7, played arguably the best game of her career in the tournament opener against Western Kentucky, finishing with 24 and 15, both season highs. She was in the starting lineup for the Longhorns for just the sixth time all season and was the single biggest reason Western Kentucky couldn't pull off the upset despite a game effort that included 12 3-pointers and 19 forced turnovers.

Gottlieb called McGee-Stafford's numbers "video-game stats."

"She was spectacular today," Gottlieb said.

Gray played AAU basketball against McGee-Stafford in Los Angeles.

"I'm sure her game has progressed, and so has mine," Gray said.

Gottlieb said Boyd and Gray have helped to shift the "narrative" of her program, and that will be a big part of their legacy here.

"The expectations are higher," Gottlieb said. "Our goal is to make a deep run in the tournament and to be a nationally relevant program, and those two players have helped to create that narrative and those expectations.

"I want this tournament for them to go exactly as they imagine. That's what I want for them."

And if what Boyd and Gray imagine is a balanced, confident team that relies on them but doesn't need them to do everything, they are off to a very good start.