Clutch Clarendon leads Cal to Final Four

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(Eds: Adds details, quotes. With AP Photos.)By TIM BOOTHAP Sports Writer

Layshia Clarendon was smiling when California was trailing, was smiling when leading the Golden Bears rally, and couldn't wipe the smile from her face after leading her team to its first Final Four.

''This is why you play basketball, for these big moments. Really enjoy them and just relish them,'' Clarendon said.

Thanks largely to Clarendon's clutch play, that smile will be on display on the biggest stage in women's college basketball. Whether it was a big shot, a needed rebound or a defensive stop, Clarendon did it all when the Golden Bears won the Spokane Regional with a 65-62 overtime victory over Georgia late Monday night.

The victory will be remembered as one of the better performances of Clarendon's career. It wasn't her best scoring game. She didn't hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer. But on a night where California struggled on offense and faced a 10-point deficit with less than 7 minutes to go, Clarendon was solid and steady.

Clarendon finished with 25 points, her 11th game this season with more than 20 points. She made 9 of 18 shots while the rest of the Bears were a combined 15 of 52. She didn't commit a turnover, played sticky defense and was the only player who never left the floor.

This NCAA tournament has been about survival for the Golden Bears. They were pushed in the first round by Fresno State, forced to overtime by South Florida, challenged by LSU and finally had to rally from 10 down to oust Georgia. Out of a possible 170 minutes of play in four games, Clarendon has sat a total of three minutes.

''I think we are the new heart attack pack. We do it so well,'' Cal's Talia Caldwell said.

Clarendon scored 17 of her 25 points in the second half and overtime in the regional final. She scored eight of Cal's first 15 points to start the half, then five of the final six to end overtime. None was bigger than Clarendon running down the clock, spinning away from her defender and hitting a 15-footer with 37.9 seconds left in overtime to give the Golden Bears a six-point lead.

''A lot of the way we are is dependent on her, but I also think this team feeds off that,'' coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. ''They bring their individual things to kind of surround that and it makes for a pretty good basketball team.''

In the regional final, Clarendon displayed her versatility. The 5-foot-9 guard is Cal's best perimeter shooter, but is also athletic with the ball-handling skills to break down a defense off the dribble. With point guard Brittany Boyd on the bench with foul trouble in the second half against Georgia, Gottlieb shifted Clarendon to run the offense. Now Clarendon was being asked not just to be the only consistent scorer against Georgia's zone defense, but also to run the show.

''To have a guard like Layshia who can handle like a point, who can knock down shots, who can look at her teammates and say it's going to be OK, who can handle the pressure that she handles and the hands on her and everything and split defenders and knock down a shot, there's no question you don't get this far without a player like that,'' Gottlieb said.

Perhaps because the Golden Bears have played in the shadow of rival Stanford and its star, Chiney Ogwumike, what Clarendon did this season may have been missed. She has started all but nine games in her California career, including every game the past three seasons.

But the Cardinal are nowhere to be found, and it's the Bears that will get the national stage at the Final Four.

It's the perfect cap for Clarendon's career. She was recruited by former coach Joanne Boyle and was an important bridge in keeping Cal together when Boyle left for Virginia and Gottlieb, a former assistant for the Golden Bears, was hired as her replacement.

Gottlieb's goal has been to build Cal into a program that can challenge Stanford for Pac-12 supremacy on a consistent basis. For at least this year, Cal can claim that title and it's largely because of what Clarendon has done.

''That kid is something special and if there was any doubt that she was an All American, I think tonight kind of seals that,'' Gottlieb said.

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