Cal women hosting early rounds and poised for deep NCAA run 

click to enlarge California's Reshanda Gray (21) is congratulated after a play against Washington by Brittany Boyd, left, and Mikayla Cowling during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Conference tournament Friday, March 6, 2015, in Seattle. - ELAINE THOMPSON/AP PHOTO
  • Elaine Thompson/AP Photo
  • California's Reshanda Gray (21) is congratulated after a play against Washington by Brittany Boyd, left, and Mikayla Cowling during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 Conference tournament Friday, March 6, 2015, in Seattle.
BERKELEY — California considers this the perfect opportunity to kick off another special NCAA Tournament run right at home.

Two years ago, Brittany Boyd and Reshanda Gray were part of Cal's first and only Final Four team.

Now as seniors who will soon be first-round picks in the WNBA draft, and hosting the first and second rounds at Haas Pavilion, there are high expectations for the fourth-seeded Golden Bears (23-9) as they open the Albany Regional against 13th-seeded Wichita State (29-4) on Friday.

"We're ready to make a deep run, we're in a good place and it feels right," coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Thursday.

The Shockers, with a school record for wins, are riding a 12-game winning streak and have won 23 of their last 24.

"They're 29-4 for a reason," said Gottlieb, whose Bears lost in the Pac-12 tournament final to rival Stanford.

Fifth-seeded Texas (22-10) takes on No. 12 Western Kentucky (30-4) in Friday's first game at Haas Pavilion in what is already being billed as one of the toughest foursomes in the bracket.

The Longhorns were forced to find their way after senior forward Nneka Enemkpali went down in January with a torn ligament in her left knee and was lost for the season.

With sophomore forward Nekia Jones also sidelined since her own left knee injury in February, this Texas team is much different from the squad that stunned Stanford 87-81 in overtime at Maples Pavilion in November just three days after the Cardinal beat No. 1 Connecticut.

"We had to figure out how to fill that void," coach Karen Aston said. "It took some time. It was an emotional blow for our team, not only a physical blow to see how we could produce what Nneka was producing. Once we decided, she's not coming back, we need to move forward, it became a collective effort."

It certainly helped to get 6-foot-7 Imani McGee-Stafford back in a flow during the Big 12 Conference season after she missed the first eight games with a left leg injury.

Here are some things to watch for in the two first-round games Friday:

FAMILIAR FOES: Hall of Fame coach Jody Conradt is on the tournament trip with Texas, and she has reminded Aston about all those old battles with Western Kentucky back in the day. The programs played for six straight seasons from 1985-90 but not since. They will face off for the third time in tournament play. The Lady Toppers are the Longhorns' second-most common NCAA opponent behind six meetings with Louisiana Tech.

OBAMA'S PICK: Western Kentucky certainly appreciates being President Barack Obama's pick to beat Texas. "It's awesome. You watch him go on television all the time, that's the big thing on ESPN where he goes on there and talks about who he feels is going to win," coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. Before the season even began, one of the Lady Toppers' main goals was to win an NCAA game — and a victory would be the program's first in the tournament in 15 years. "That's pretty cool but his pick doesn't win the game," senior Alexis Govan said. "What matters is what we do on the court and how we come out and play."

BUILDING TRADITION: Cal will try to reach the tournament's second round for the fourth straight season. When Gottlieb arrived in 2011, she spoke of taking the program to a new level where it would compete on the big stage every year. "I'm really proud of our players for getting us here," Gottlieb said.

DEFENSIVE SHOCKERS: Wichita State is allowing opponents only 51 points, good for fourth in the nation, while doing so playing all five starters more than 30 minutes. Gottlieb is preparing her team by referencing the attacking Arizona State defense that swarms from all angles.

PLAYING HOST: The last two times Berkeley hosted NCAA games, the home team wasn't part of the festivities. In fact, rival Stanford played at Haas Pavilion in the 2009 regional. Cal then hosted the first two rounds the following year. This marks the Bears' first time playing an NCAA Tournament home game since the 1991-92 season. For Boyd, it will be her last hurrah right in her hometown of Berkeley. "I'm actually very fortunate, very blessed," she said. "This is just a great opportunity for the community. This is a great time of basketball."

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