Tough road to NCAA tournament for Cal women

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When the California University women’s basketball team learned late Sunday night that it had received an at-large berth to the NCAA Division II tournament, it was cause for celebration. After five agonizing days waiting to learn if their 20 wins and strength of schedule were enough for a return to the tournament, the Vulcans had a collective sigh of relief.


Cal missed the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2002, and nobody around the Vulcans’ basketball office was taking anything for granted last weekend, especially after a loss to Gannon in the quarterfinals of the PSAC tournament. A spot in the NCAA’s Atlantic Regional was considered a toss-up.


“After we lost, we were rooting for Gannon and Edinboro to win the PSAC tournament because we knew they were already in the NCAA tournament,” Cal’s second-year head coach Jess Strom said. “When that didn’t happen, and Bloomsburg won, it was nerve-wracking. I knew we were right on the bubble. I thought it was a 50-50 chance for that final spot. Millersville had made a strong case for itself, and Fayetteville State had been undefeated in the region late in the year.”


It is just one of the curious aspects of the California season that the element that has been the biggest obstacle to success – the schedule – became the Vulcans’ strongest selling point for an NCAA tournament berth. At 20-8, Cal has only one loss to an opponent that didn’t make the NCAA tournament. And the Vulcans have beaten three of the teams in the eight-team regional. Those wins over Gannon, Glenville State (by 47 points) and Fairmont State, along with a three-point win over Millersville, trumped Fayetteville State’s 24-5 record.


“There was relief, but also excitement when we found out that we made it,” Strom said.


When Cal plays its first-round game today (2:30 p.m.) at Gannon’s Hammermill Center, the opponent will be a familiar one. The Vulcans, who were given the No. 7 seed in the regional, play PSAC West Division rival and No. 2 seed Edinboro (22-6). Five of the eight teams in the regional are from the PSAC.


Edinboro has defeated California twice this season and eight times in a row overall, though none of the games held the same importance as today’s encounter. Senior guard Stephanie Michael is the only Cal player who has beaten Edinboro, and that was during her freshman season.


“When I found out we were playing Edinboro, I was so happy,” Michael said. “I wanted another shot at them. This is the perfect opportunity to knock them off.”


Edinboro defeated Cal 70-51 at the Convocation Center in early December – a game in which the Vulcans played without 6-3 sophomore forward Elena Antonenko, the Vulcans’ tallest player. The Fighting Scots also won 60-41 last month in Edinboro when Cal was held to 19 percent shooting.


Michael says handling Edinboro’s aggressive defense will be a key, especially because the Vulcans can’t match the Fighting Scots’ size in the low post.


“Edinboro has been able to make us play faster than we’ve wanted,” Michael said. “The loses to Edinboro in the last few years have been in our heads. Against them, we’ve played not to lose instead of playing to win.”


Michael and Strom agree that shouldn’t be the case today. Cal is a decided underdog, but March Madness often goes to the dogs.


“We’re approaching it as they’ve beaten us eight times in a row. Stephanie, our senior leader, and our juniors, take that personally. They’re tired of losing to Edinboro,” Strom said.


Edinboro has two of the best players in the PSAC in senior forward Samantha Blazetic (14.9 points per game and 7.7 rebounds) and senior guard Kiara Brown(17.8 ppg). Brown began her career at Cal and was a teammate of Michael’s three years ago.


Michael, an All-PSAC West first team selection, is the only senior on Cal’s roster. She leads the Vulcans in scoring (13.6) and three-pointers (76) along with career injuries and determination. Michael has overcome two torn ACL injuries, a broken hand and numerous other bumps, bruises and stitches. She’s also played for three different head coaches at Cal – four if you count the one who began the recruiting of Michael when she was a 1,000-point scorer and long-range shooter at Morgantown (W.Va.) High School.


“She’s one of the most resilient kids I’ve been around,” Strom said. “Anyone who has been around her for five minutes loves her. She’s never been the quickest kid, never been the biggest. But everyone has respected her work ethic. She’s put in more work than kid I’ve seen. She spent all last summer at Cal and worked out at 6 a.m. every day.”


Michael said that missing the NCAA tournament last year allowed her to go on spring break for the first time, and she hated the experience. She preferred to be playing basketball. Spring break for Cal begins Saturday, and Michael and the Vulcans have no plans to hit the beach.


“We’re hoping to win the regional,” Michael said.


Notes

Edinboro is ranked No. 18 in the USA Today Coaches Top 25 poll. … The winner plays either No. 3 seed and defending national champion Shaw (25-4) or Glenville State (26-3) Saturday. … In the night session, No. 1 seed Gannon (28-4) plays No. 8 Fairmont State (23-9), and No. 4 Indiana (28-4) faces No. 5 Bloomsburg (24-5). … This is Cal’s 12th NCAA tournament appearance.


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