SPOKANE, Wash. – Georgia seniors Jasmine Hassell and Jasmine James arrived at the interview room of the Spokane Arena with reddened, tear-filled eyes that told the story of their final college basketball game more than any stats sheet ever could.
Only minutes removed from a 65-62 overtime loss to California, Hassell and James tried to explain their emotions after the Lady Bulldogs blew a 10-point lead in the second half and fell one win short of the Final Four in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s disappointing and it hurts,” a sobbing Hassell said.
James said, “To have something that you’ve always wanted to do, just be so close, and to end up getting out-worked for it, it hurts.
“But we still had a great run, and that’s not something to be overlooked. I’m still proud of what we did accomplish.”
The 14th-ranked Lady Bulldogs finished 28-7 after making a 19th straight trip to the NCAA tournament. Georgia was seeded fourth and California second in the Spokane Regional.
California (32-3), ranked sixth, heads to its first Final Four to play the winner of tonight’s Tennessee-Louisville game on April 7 in New Orleans. Incredibly, the Bears won despite missing 17 of their first 18 shots.
“I love this team because they don’t get rattled,” second-year Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb said.
Bears senior guard Layshia Clarendon was voted the Most Outstanding Player at the regional. The All-America candidate, who sports a reddish-brown mohawk hairdo that makes it appear that she’s playing with a small, furry animal on her head, played all 45 minutes in the title game and scored a game-high 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting from the floor.
“She’s definitely a great player,” James said.
“Layshia is the glue,” Bears guard Afure Jemerigbe said. “She’s always poised.”
The combination of Clarendon’s silky-smooth jumpers and a 54-41 advantage on the boards – including 26-16 at the offensive end – sparked the Bears’ victory. California shot just 34.3 percent from the field and 50 percent at the free-throw line, but the Lady Bulldogs shot only 36.5 percent from the floor.
“They made more plays than we did and they deserve to win the game,” Georgia coach Andy Landers said.
Landers’ words rang true late in the game in particular.
Georgia led 49-39 with 6:46 to go, but the Lady Bulldogs needed a putback basket by Anne Marie Armstrong with 8.5 seconds left to tie the game at 52-52. Armstrong’s bucket was the only Georgia field goal in the final 7.5 minutes, and it forced overtime when Clarendon then missed a 3-pointer under pressure.
Inexperienced point guard Khaalidah Miller, who struggled late in regulation after replacing James when the latter fouled out with 2:20 left, buried a 3-pointer for the first basket of overtime. California scored the next nine points, and Clarendon finished off Georgia with a 14-foot, pull-up jumper with 37.9 seconds to go and – following an Armstrong 3-pointer with 3.4 seconds left — the second of two free throws.
A desperation heave from midcourt by Georgia’s Shacobia Barbee did not come close.
“I was smiling a lot in the second half even though we were losing,” said Clarendon, the Pacific-12 Conference Scholar-Athlete of the Year in women’s basketball. “This is why you play basketball, for these big moments. Really enjoy them and just relish them.”
Landers said he employed a 2-3 zone defense to try to deal with Cal’s quickness, slow the Bears’ transition offense and clog the paint.
“I was pleased with it in terms of the strategy,” Landers said. “I think that was right.”
Zone defenses often leave teams vulnerable on the boards, however.
“Their post players are relentless on the boards, really do a terrific job there,” Landers said.
Star Cal forward Gennifer Brandon, the team’s leading rebounder (11.3) and third-leading scorer (12.6) coming into the game, went scoreless and had just six rebounds. Reshanda Gray filled in for Brandon most of the way after halftime and produced eight points and 11 rebounds (eight offensive).
The Bears, forever hidden in the shadow of perennial national powerhouse Stanford in the San Francisco Bay area, simply refused to lose the biggest game in the history of Cal women’s basketball. Georgia edged Stanford, the Pac-12 co-champion with California, 61-59 on Saturday.
Despite their horrendous early shooting, the Bears — one of the nation’s top rebounding teams — still managed to hold two brief leads in the first half before heading to the locker room down 26-21.
Barbee, a freshman guard-forward, led Georgia with 14 points, 10 rebounds and three steals. She made the five-player all-tournament team along with James, who had 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Armstrong finished with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.
For California, Afure Jemerigbe had 14 points and eight rebounds, and Talia Caldwell contributed 10 points and eight rebounds. Jemerigbe and Stanford’s Chiney Ogwumike rounded out the all-tournament team.
“Fu (Jemerigbe) was the toughest I think I’ve ever seen her in her life in big moments,” Gottlieb said. “But I could go down the line.”
Most of the 5,863 spectators were long gone by the time the Bears cut down the nets and Caldwell was seen caressing the regional championship trophy.
“My newborn,” Caldwell said.
Georgia women’s basketball has been Landers’ “baby” for 34 years. He’s coached five Final Four teams, but he’s still searching for his first national championship.
“I’m disappointed,” he said, “but I’m proud of our basketball team and the run that we have made.”