Back-to-back wins over perennial Pac-12 power Stanford and conference-leading USC should help.
Four days after toppling the Cardinal, the Golden Bears rallied from six points down in regulation then held the Trojans without a basket in overtime to beat USC 71-63 on Thursday night.
"I told the players, I think they're doing something special that is changing this program and what Cal basketball means," Gottlieb said. "Great teams have to sometimes win when you have to battle from behind. (We) finally dug in and figured out what we needed to do."
It took a monumental night from Gennifer Brandon to keep the Bears rolling.
Brandon shook off a slow first half with 15 of her 23 points coming after halftime and matched a 34-year-old school record with 26 rebounds while helping Cal (14-2, 4-1 Pac-12) end a three-game losing streak to USC.
Brandon scored the final six points in regulation after the Bears fell behind 62-56, then made a key block and scored on an offensive rebound in overtime.
"I was basically in a daze," said Brandon, who went 9 of 18 from the floor. "I don't know why, it was just a different type of focus. My mind was just on the rim and soft touch like we do in practice."
The Golden Bears shot just 31.4 percent from the floor and were outplayed for most of the game before rallying from six points down in the final 1:42 of regulation and outscoring the Trojans 9-1 in the extra period.
Layshia Clarendon scored six of her 27 points in overtime for Cal, which looked sluggish early while coming off an emotional win over No. 6 Stanford four days earlier. Brittany Boyd added 12.
Kate Oliver had 10 points and 10 rebounds for USC (7-9, 4-1) and Cassie Harberts added 15 points. The Trojans could have moved one-half game ahead of No. 14 UCLA in the Pac-12 standings but instead dropped into a second-place tie with Cal.
USC coach Michael Cooper said Brandon was the difference.
"(She) was putting up Dwight Howard numbers," Cooper said. "Sometimes skill and game plans and schemes go out the window. It's a matter of who's going to fight the hardest to win that rebound, and that's what she did."
Brandon did most of her damage in the final nine minutes of the second half. She scored 12 of Cal's final 18 points and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds. Brandon's 26 total rebounds tied Colleen Galloway's school record set in 1978.
The Bears needed every one of them after the Trojans controlled the tempo for nearly 35 minutes. USC packed its defense tight into the key, controlled the boards and kept Cal from getting much going in the interior.
Aliya Crook's 3-pointer with 2:43 remaining in the second half gave the Trojans a 58-53 lead. She later made two free throws with 1:42 left but USC went scoreless after that while Brandon scored six straight points to force overtime.
It was all Cal in the extra period.
Boyd took a short pass from Brandon and hit a fastbreak layup before Clarendon scored on a reverse layup. After Crook's free throw pulled USC to 66-63, Brandon scored on a putback and Clarendon followed with three free throws.
"I thought we conceded the early pace and the style," Gottlieb said. "Later in the game we really got into a flow of getting the right people where we wanted them to be. When we get things in rhythm, that's when we get offensive rebounds."
The Bears, who came in ranked third in the country in rebounding margin, were outworked on the boards for most of the first half and allowed the Trojans to build an 18-14 lead following a putback by Harberts.
Alexyz Vaioletama later hit an 18-foot jumper for USC to make it 27-24 before Cal closed the first half on a 12-4 run. Clarendon scored four points during the run before Boyd's 3-pointer capped it and gave the Bears a 36-31 lead at the break.
USC trailed by six early in the second half then went on an 11-0 run to go up 46-41. Crook, who scored 11 points in overtime to beat the Bears at Haas Pavilion last year, had all but two of the points for the Trojans.