Nov. 11, 2006
BERKELEY, Calif. - Coming off an 18-win season and an NCAA Tournament appearance, the preseason nationally-ranked California women's basketball team looks to make more waves on the national scene in 2006-07.
Joanne Boyle led the Golden Bears to its best season in 13 years during her inaugural campaign in Berkeley. Last season, Cal posted an 18-12 record and earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament, marking the Bears' first winning record and postseason appearance since 1992-93.
"Coming in, I don't think I had expectations about where we were supposed to go or what we were supposed to do," said Boyle, who owns a four-year career mark of 85-41(.675). "In the end when I look back, I'm so pleased with what we were able to accomplish, not so much the record but how we grew from the beginning of the year to the end of the year."
Cal gave a valiant effort against seventh-seeded St. John's in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but lost, 78-68, after leading at the half. This season, Boyle hopes her team is watching the NCAA Selection Show confident that it'll be among the 64 teams announced and eager to learn its seed.
"I was the first one out of the seat," Boyle said after the 2006 NCAA bids were announced. "I started jumping. It was out of control in the locker room. I think it took us all a couple of seconds to process it because there were only a couple of seeds left. When we all registered it was us, it was just mayhem."
In 2005-06, Cal earned at least one victory over eight of its nine league opponents, including season sweeps over fourth-place USC and Washington State and a home victory over Pac-10 Tournament champion UCLA. The Bears' 66-64 win over No. 13/15 Arizona State Jan. 19 marked Cal's first over a team ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll since an 80-75 triumph over No. 9 Colorado State Dec. 21, 1998, in the championship game of the Oakland Tribune Classic. The Sun Devils entered the game ranked No. 15 in the AP poll and No. 13 in the ESPN-USA Today-WBCA poll. Nine days after the ASU win, Cal defeated No. 23/25 (AP/coaches) USC, 72-67, in Los Angeles.
While Cal triumphed over many tough opponents, the Bears sometimes struggled to secure consecutive wins.
"When you look at our record and see that we won big games and lost some games that we shouldn't have lost, that showed that we were a young team," said Boyle, who often started four freshmen last year. "I hope what our players take from that is an understanding that we need to play at a consistently high level and win the games we're supposed to win. That's maturity, to maintain a level of excellence and not go on a roller coaster. That's our goal for this year."
After recording a memorable 2005-06 season, Cal has earned a spot in the national spotlight heading into this year. Four preseason polls have picked the Bears among the top 25 teams nationally, headlined by ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman tabbing Cal No. 12 in an ESPN.com poll. Athlon Sports, SportspageMagazine.com and Lindy's chose Cal No. 19, No. 22 and No. 25, respectively, in their preseason predictions.
Cal returns three starters and seven letterwinners from last year's team, which also had a notable run during conference play. The Bears placed sixth in the Pac-10 at 10-8, marking the team's first winning conference record since the 1992-93 squad tied for fourth with the same record. The Pac-10 coaches picked Cal to tie for fourth in the 2006-07 preseason poll, the Bears' highest-ever spot in the nine-year history of the poll. Last season in the Pac-10, the Bears finished in the top five in 10 different statistical categories.
Sophomores Devanei Hampton (forward/center), Alexis Gray-Lawson (guard) and Ashley Walker (forward/center) carried a heavy load for the Bears as rookie starters and will be looked to for leadership again this year. Hampton became the 10th freshman to earn first-team All-Pac-10 honors after topping Cal and all conference rookies in scoring (15.4 ppg) and rebounding (7.9 rpg).
Gray-Lawson garnered Pac-10 Freshman of the Year - the first Cal player to win the award - after finishing second on the team in scoring (14.6 ppg) and leading the Bears in assists (2.7 apg) and three-point percentage (38.9 percent).
Walker, who joined Hampton and Gray-Lawson on the Pac-10 All-Freshman team, led the conference in blocks (1.70 bpg) and was third on the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) and second in rebounding (7.7 rpg). Cal also welcomes back seniors Keanna Levy and Emmelie Geraedts, juniors Krista Foster and Kelly O'Connell, who missed her first two seasons with injuries, and sophomore Shantrell Sneed.
Gray-Lawson ranked second in the Pac-10 in minutes played per game at 36.4 and was one of four Cal players to log over 30 minutes per game. Walker (32.6 mpg) and then-senior Reneé Wright (35.5 mpg) also logged heavy minutes.
With a host of veterans returning and the addition of three talented freshmen in Rama N'diaye (6-5 forward/center), Natasha Vital (5-8 guard) and Lauren Greif (5-10 guard), Boyle anticipates that increased depth and versatility will be a strength of this year's team.
"The returners are going to embrace the freshmen, but they're going to make the freshmen earn their time," Boyle said. "Practices will be more competitive, which is only going to make us better. Hopefully, a little more depth will take some pressure off of foul trouble and the fatigue of going from back-to-back games with one-day rest in between."
Cal's strength will continue to be its post game, but the Bears are hopeful that they'll showcase an improved outside game this season. In 2005-06, Cal ranked seventh in the Pac-10 in scoring at 64.8 ppg, but there were moments when the Bears demonstrated their offensive explosiveness, including a 23-point home win over Washington (81-58) - the Bears' biggest margin of victory ever over the Huskies.
Defense will continue to be the Bears' hallmark in Boyle's second season in Berkeley. Last year, the Bears ranked second in the Pac-10 in scoring defense (60.4 ppg) and third in field goal percentage defense (37.8), breaking the previous school records of 63.2 ppg (2001-02) and 40.2 percent (1978-79). The team showed dramatic improvement from 2004-05 when opponents averaged 71.3 ppg (10th Pac-10) and shot 44.4 percent (10th).
"I want our chemistry to continue to grow," Boyle said. "I want all of the classes to start taking ownership of this team. There are key people in each one of those classes. It's a process when you're figuring out who's going to lead and who's going to follow. Everyone is starting to understand what they need to do for this program to continue to develop."
Sophomore Alexis Gray-Lawson is Cal's only returning starting guard. Gray-Lawson, 5-8, had an immediate impact during her freshman season and has been tabbed a preseason honorable mention All-America selection by Street & Smith after being a USA Basketball Under-20 National team finalist over the summer. As a rookie, the Oakland, Calif., product tied for second on the team with 23 double-digit scoring games, including a career-high 30 points at Stanford on 11-of-15 shooting.
"Lexi had a great opportunity to improve this spring going against competition at USA Basketball," said Boyle, who was named an assistant coach for the USA Basketball FIBA Americas Under-20 Women's Championship. "When Lexi got hurt (knee) and couldn't continue, it devastated her because she is such a competitor. She wants to be a great player and leader, and she's finding that next gear. She's worked a lot on her game since last season."
Gray-Lawson saw most of her minutes at point guard last season but may spend more time at the shooting guard spot with the addition of freshman Natasha Vital. The 5-8 Vital was ranked No. 55 nationally by Blue Star Index after contributing 21 points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals per game as a senior at Lincoln High School in Stockton, Calif.
"Tasha loves to push the ball in transition," Boyle said. "She has a scorer's mentality at the point. She can get to the basket and finish, can shoot the three and has a pull-up jumper. However, Tasha's first instinct is to get her teammates involved."
Senior Keanna Levy, Cal's 2005-06 Most Improved Player, hopes to play a larger role at shooting guard or small forward during her final campaign. After seeing limited action most of the season, Levy was called on to play a big role during the Bears first-round NCAA Tournament game against St. John's. Levy saw a career-high 29 minutes against the Red Storm, notching eight points, one rebound and one assist. In that game, the 5-10 native of Waterloo, Iowa, was 2-of-3 from the floor - including 1-of-1 from three-point rage - and 3-of-4 from the charity stripe.
Junior Kelly O'Connell has spent countless hours rehabbing due to foot injuries over the last two years and is excited to make her official debut in a Cal uniform this season. O'Connell, a point guard, did start an exhibition game for the Bears during the 2003-04 season. Prior to her arrival at Cal, she averaged 14.2 points, 7.1 assists and 4.3 steals per game at Mullen High School in Lakewood, Colo., to propel her school to a runner-up finish at the state tournament.
Freshman Lauren Greif is expected to contribute immediately to both the shooting guard and small forward spots. Greif led the state of Oregon in scoring at 22.9 ppg as a senior at Lincoln High School and graduated as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,961 points (20.0 ppg). The 5-10 Portland product was the first player to verbally commit to Cal under Boyle and will be counted on to get everyone on the court involved.
Sophomore Ashley Walker should start at power forward for Cal again this season. The small forward position is up for grabs with the graduation of Reneé Wright, who was third on the team in rebounding at 6.5 rpg and was the only senior on last year's young squad.
Walker, a 6-1 forward/center, registered career highs of 21 points - 18 coming in the second half - and a career-high six assists in the NCAA game against St. John's. A native of Modesto, Calif., Walker ranked first in the Pac-10 with 51 blocks (fifth all-time in Cal history) and led the league in rebounding in Pac-10 games at 8.7 rpg.
"Ashley is listed at 6-1, but she plays much bigger and continues to improve," Boyle said. "She and Devanei (Hampton) are a great post combination, and they complement each other really well. Ashley has more of that high-post game and is very deceptive. She's guard-like for a four in some ways. She can handle it. Her confidence grew over the summer with USA Basketball."
Junior Krista Foster (6-0), sophomore Shantrell Sneed (6-0) and freshman Rama N'diaye (6-5) will contend for time at small forward. Foster, who saw most of her time in the post last season, played in all 30 games and made eight starts. In a career-high 38 minutes of playing time, Foster posted six points and six rebounds against St. John's and recorded career highs of 13 points and seven rebounds in the win at Arizona last year.
Sneed, who also played in the post in 2005-06, battled a variety of injuries last season and is eager to make larger contributions this year. As a rookie, she tallied a career-high nine points, three rebounds and a block in the Bears' first win in Tucson over the Wildcats since 1993.
N'diaye, who hails from Dakar, Senegal, but attended high school in Japan, is capable of playing the three, four or five spots on the court for Cal.
"In the spring, we worked with Krista and Trell on their guard skills," Boyle said. "We had them do guard workouts instead of post workouts. Rama can also have an impact for us on the wing. We need somebody to move out and face the basket and be a threat for us with Reneé leaving."
Devanei Hampton, a 6-3 sophomore forward/center from Oakland, Calif., has emerged as one of the most dominant post players in the country. She enters this season as a preseason high honorable mention All-America selection, according to Street & Smith.
As a freshman, Hampton averaged 15.4 ppg - seventh overall in the Pac-10 - to become only the third freshman in Cal history to lead the team in scoring and the first since 1981-82. Over the summer, Hampton was named to the 12-player USA Under-20 National team.
"Devanei has shown unbelievable development in her maturity over the last year," Boyle said. "She has blossomed into someone who gets the opportunities that are in front of her. I am excited to see what the next three years at Cal hold for her."
Since joining the Bears for summer workouts, Rama N'diaye has gained 20 pounds of muscle and has proven to be a fast learner. As a senior at Keisei High School in Kumamoto, Japan, she averaged 20 points, 18 rebounds, six assists and seven blocks per game.
"Rama has done a great job adjusting to the rigors of academic and athletic life at Cal," Boyle said. "She is one of the most skilled post players I've ever seen. She's mobile, versatile, a shot-blocking threat and runs the floor well."
Walker is also an option for Boyle at the center spot. She effectively uses her quickness, athleticism and shot-blocking ability when she plays in the post.
Senior Emmelie Geraedts provides depth at forward and center for Cal. Geraedts, a 6-2 player from Weert, The Netherlands, gained additional experience training with the Dutch National team over the summer.
Geraedts has seen action in 46 games off the bench during her career and shot a career-high 53.1 percent from the floor as a sophomore.
Cal's 2006-07 schedule features 11 teams that competed in the 2006 NCAA Tournament and four WNIT selections.
The Bears open the regular season at home against Saint Mary's Nov. 12 before playing their next four games on the road. After the contest against the Gaels, Cal begins the Nov. 17-18 Pepperdine Tip-off Classic with a match-up against Florida. The entire field consists of 2006 NCAA Tournament teams, as Pepperdine and Rutgers round out the group.
Cal's non-conference slate doesn't get any easier, as the Bears spend Thanksgiving Weekend at the Nov. 24-25 Vanderbilt Tournament, which includes WNIT participant Belmont and NCAA qualifiers Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic.
After traveling most of November, Cal faces Harvard Dec. 2 on the opening day of the third-annual Contra Costa Times Classic. The tournament, which includes San Jose State and Arkansas State, wraps up Dec. 3. Cal then battles two WNIT participants - Fresno State Dec. 7 at home and Kansas Dec. 10 on the road.
Cal tips off conference play at UCLA Dec. 20 and at USC Dec. 22. The Bears close out 2006 as host to Arizona State Dec. 28 and Arizona Dec. 30 and ring in 2007 against non-conference opponent Rhode Island Jan. 2. UC Riverside, a 2006 NCAA selection, travels to Berkeley Jan. 31. The regular season wraps up Feb. 24 against UCLA in Berkeley.
Stanford, USC, UCLA, Arizona State and Washington joined Cal as Pac-10 representatives at the 2006 NCAA Tournament, marking the first time the conference received six NCAA bids. The sixth-annual Pac-10 Tournament will be staged March 2-5 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.