Familiarity among coaches highlights Cal-Virginia matchup

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Moments after it was revealed that seventh-seeded California would face 10th-seeded Virginia in the first round of the women's NCAA Tournament, Cavaliers coach Joanne Boyle got a text message from her Cal counterpart, Lindsay Gottlieb.

"They love these storylines, right," Gottlieb wrote.

The storyline for Friday's Cal-Virginia game in Columbia, S.C., is obvious.

Boyle was Cal's head coach from 2005 to 2011, taking the Bears to the NCAA Tournament four times. When Boyle left Berkeley to become Virginia's head coach following the 2010-11 season, her successor at Cal was Gottlieb, who had been an assistant under Boyle at Richmond and Cal.

"She's one of my best friends," Boyle said on the Cavaliers' website.

If Virginia (18-13) should beat Cal (21-10), a different storyline emerges, because the Cavaliers' second-round opponent would probably be No. 2-seeded South Carolina, whose head coach, Dawn Staley, is the best player ever to come out of Virginia.

But first things first.

Getting past Cal will be a challenge, based on the way the Bears finished the season. Cal won six of its final eight games, beating then-No. 14 Stanford along the way. The Bears lost to ninth-ranked UCLA 77-74 in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals but held a seven-point lead with less than seven minutes remaining.

"We really put our finger on some things that we needed to improve on the court, and our players really embraced improving them," Gottlieb said on the Bears' website. "The growth on the court has been pretty evident and we're playing our best basketball at the right time of the year."

The Bears are led by three-time all-conference selection Kristine Anigwe, who averages 16.7 points and 8.8 rebounds while hitting 56.9 percent of her shots from the field.

Last year the Bears had to sweat it out on selection day before sneaking in with a No. 9 seed. This year there was no anxiety as Cal, which went 11-7 in conference play, landed its sixth NCAA Tournament bid in the past seven years.

"I think it's a reflection of how the committee works to actually watch games and how well we played over the last month of the season," Gottlieb told the San Francisco Chronicle of the surprising seeding. "We're thrilled. It's great to be in, and it's great to get the respect of a little higher seed than maybe people thought."

Virginia was disappointed when it was left out of last year's NCAA Tournament despite a 19-12 record, and its 4-6 start this season did not look promising. But the Cavaliers responded with an eight-game winning streak and finished with a 10-6 mark in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"Last year we were heartbroken," said guard Aliyah Huland El, the Cavaliers' second-leading scorer at 10.1 points per game. "We were absolutely expecting to have our name called, and I think we used that as motivation in the offseason and preseason."

Virginia lost four of its final six games this season, but three of those losses were against teams that earned No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Cavaliers played five games this season against No. 1 seeds (two against Louisville, two against Notre Dame and one against Mississippi State). The Cavaliers lost all five by double-digit margins, but they know what it's like to be up against the best.

Virginia did enough to land its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2010, and Boyle does not want her team's inexperience in the NCAA Tournament to be a factor.

"You don't try to do anything different, and you don't become something you're not," Boyle said, according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress. "Our identity this year has been our effort, our defense and our rebounding. We are who we are, and I want the girls relaxed."

Sophomore Dominique Toussaint leads the Cavaliers' balanced-scoring attack, averaging 11.3 points per game.

Virginia will have its hands full trying to defend Anigwe and Cal guard Asha Thomas, who averaged 17.6 points over the final eight games.

"They're an athletic team, and they like to get up and down the floor," Boyle told the Daily Progress.

The Cavaliers will count on 6-foot-9 sophomore center Felicia Aiyeotan to control the paint. She averages 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game and is the tallest player in women's college basketball this season.