With four freshmen in the starting lineup, the Cal women's basketball team could not achieve its goal of reaching the NCAA tournament.
Now, after four victories in the WNIT, the Golden Bears (22-13) face Illinois State (28-7) tonight in the tournament semifinals at Normal, Ill. With an April Fools Day victory, Cal would get the chance to play a 37th game, at home, for the WNIT title.
"It feels like baseball season," Cal coach Joanne Boyle said.
As much as the Bears would love to win this tournament in senior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson's farewell, Boyle can't help speculating what it could mean for next season.
"If we get 4-5-6 games in postseason, is that better than getting one game in the NCAA tournament?" she wondered. "It depends on how you look at it."
Certainly this postseason run has provided a young squad with added experience and confidence after an 18-13 regular season.
The Bears were 6-8 on Jan. 10 but have gone 16-5 since.
"We've improved a lot in every position. I just think we're more mature," said freshman forward DeNesha Stallworth, a former Pinole Valley High standout, who has averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds in four WNIT games.
"We fell short of our potential, not making the NCAAs," added freshman guard Layshia Clarendon. "So it was kind of like, 'Hello.' We just woke up and we're trying to take advantage of this opportunity."
Clarendon, who is contributing 11.3 points and 4.8 assists in WNIT play, said she couldn't imagine beginning her college career with a 6-8 record.
"It turned into the 'young thing' a lot. You try not to let it be an excuse, but it was just inexperience," she said. "But now we don't really have that excuse. We've played (35) games."
Boyle said the freshmen didn't have a clue about most things when the season began. "In high school, you give the ball to the best players and they do what they do," she explained.
From that raw starting point, she said, the young players have gone from being freshmen to "freshmen-and-a-half" to essentially sophomores.
"We're not great, but we're a lot better," Boyle said. "We're a lot more confident, I think we work harder, I think they understand the stuff we're asking them to do. They understand how to win games."
A victory against Illinois State, regular-season champ in the Missouri Valley Conference, would give the Bears a Saturday title-game shot at home against Miami, which beat Michigan in the other semifinal Wednesday.
"It's a great springboard for next year," Boyle said.
And a lasting reminder of what the team really wanted from this season.
"I think we'll have the feeling of making the NIT and not wanting to be here again, even though it's a good opportunity," Clarendon said. "We wanted to make the NCAAs."