Road to WNIT Title Defense Goes Through Cal Poly

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The Cal women's basketball team did not set out the season intent on defending its WNIT title. But after a lackluster season kept the Bears out of the NCAA tournament, the best they can do is repeat - and they won't even be the favorites.

"I don't think we're really thinking, 'Oh we're defending NIT champs' too much," point guard Layshia Clarendon said, "We're just thankful for the chance to still play and go out and show people that we can be road warriors, and we can win games on the road, and we can be a tournament team."

Cal will have to settle for that other tournament after losing in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament last week. The Bears travel to San Luis Obispo, Calif., to take on Cal Poly tonight at 7 p.m. in Mott Gym in the first round of the WNIT.

Despite being the away team and the underdogs, Cal (17-15, 7-11 in the Pac-10) has an irrefutable edge in postseason experience after winning six in a row last year to take home the crown.

"It gives us tremendous confidence going into the tournament again, seeing what it feels like to do it and seeing that we have done it," senior guard Rachelle Federico said. "The preparation and the mental, quick, turnaround games is something that we're used to.

"Against a team like Cal Poly, it's almost like the first NCAA tournament round."

But it's not.

Then again, that may be to the Bears' advantage. They have been inconsistent, but they're not lacking talent. Cal had enough skill to beat a pair of NCAA tournament teams - Arizona State and Rutgers, both seven seeds. And it has been playing better of late, with two wins in the Pac-10 tournament.

Federico said the squad's defense triggered its run in Los Angeles.

"Our strength right now I think is figuring out our defensive game plan," Federico said. "I think people are starting to click and realize that they're a lot faster than what they thought, and more aggressive physically and getting tips and steals on some balls that they didn't know they could."

Cal has not faced too many guards at Rachel Clancy's level, though. The Mustangs' senior paces the squad with 16.8 points per game. Despite the fact that she pulls down over five boards a game, the 5-foot-9 Ireland native is a pure shooter. She shoots 45 percent from the field on the season, 41.7 percent from 3-point range and 82.4 percent from the charity stripe.

The 3-point and free throw percentages are better than any Bear player, while the field goal percentage beats any Cal guard.

"She moves well with the ball," Federico said. "They run in motion, they're always moving, they're really great passers, they're gonna hit the open person.

"So if you put some length on her, hopefully get her in the 10 (point range), that would be nice."

Cal Poly (18-12) also boasts a formidable post player. Abby Bloetscher is second on the team with 11.4 points a game, shooting close to 50 percent. The 6-foot-3 junior leads the Mustangs in rebounding, with 7.4 boards per game.

"She's a great back-to-the-basket type player, the only one they have actually," Federico said. "They run a four out kind of motion. She's really getting moves up and under, drop set baseline."

Regardless of Cal Poly's players, Clarendon is confident in her team's abilities. For her, the recipe is simple.

"We're all good scorers, we can all score," she said, "So I think being aggressive on the offensive end."

If the Bears execute their game plan, tonight's game could be the appetizer to another title feast.


Jonathan Kuperberg covers women's basketball. Contact him at [email protected]

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