COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Virginia won its first women’s NCAA Tournament game in nine years. The Cavaliers’ reward is a matchup with the most famous player in program history in South Carolina coach Dawn Staley.
Staley, a Hall of Famer, led Virginia three Final Fours and a championship game appearance, her grit and toughness powering the Cavaliers from 1989-92. These Cavs showed some Staley-like determination in holding off No. 7 seed Cal, 68-62, to start the Albany Regional on Friday.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Virginia center Felicia Aiyeotan, who led the team with 16 points.
The Cavaliers (19-13) took flight after squandering a seven-point lead in the final seven minutes. Dominique Toussaint hit a 3-pointer from the left side of the circle to snap a 57-all game with 1:08 to go. Aiyeton had another uncontested basket and Jocelyn Willoughby made six foul shots down the stretch to seal Virginia’s first NCAA win since topping Marist in a first-round game in 2009.
Willoughby said Virginia players love the legacy Staley left them. But they’re here to advance, no matter who’s on the other side.
“It’s not about her, it’s about the basketball game,” Willoughby said. “That’s what’s important.”
The defending national champion Gamecocks beat 15th-seeded North Carolina A&T in the second game Friday night.
Cal (21-11) had a streak of seven straight first-round NCAA wins entering the game, but played without leading scorer and rebounder Kristine Anigwe, who was medically ruled out after missing a morning shoot-around. The team would not detail what was wrong with the 6-foot-4 junior.
Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said she could not elaborate on Anigwe’s condition, only that it was more important to protect a young players’ health than try and rush her back to the court if she was not cleared to play.
No doubt Anigwe’s absence gave Virginia and especially the 6-9 Aiyeotan room to move down low. Aiyeotan was 5-of-5 in the final two quarters as Virginia moved in front.
Gottlieb knew her team would miss Anigwe — and knew they’d find a way to rally without her.
“It’s what we do,” she said.
Despite missing Anigwe, Cal appeared ready to take control as they scored the first two baskets of the third quarter to move in front 35-30. That’s when Virginia went on a 20-8 run to lead 50-43.
Cal was not done, though, as Asha Thomas and Kianna Smith combined to score 12 straight points in the fourth quarter. Thomas’ foul shot tied things at 57-all with 1:53 to play.
On Virginia’s next time down court, Toussaint struck from the left side of the arc for her go ahead shot. Smith cut things to one with her basket a moments later before Aiyeotan was alone once more for an uncontested basket to restore the Cavaliers margin.
Cal could not respond.
For Cal, it was the latest disappointing postseason showing.
The Golden Bears have only been past the second round one time in coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s six tournament appearances when they reached the Final Four in 2013.
Jocelyn Willoughby had 13 points and Aliyah Huland El 12 for Virginia.
Smith led Cal with 20 points while Thomas added 17.
Virginia: The Cavaliers turned up their defense in the final two quarters to overcome Cal’s hot start. The Golden Bears had 14 of their 20 turnovers in the final 20 minutes. Virginia will need that kind of effort if they hope to go further in the Albany Regional.
Cal: The Golden Bears needed more push from the rest of their starters with Anigwe out and did not get it. Mikayla Cowling and Penina Davidson, who combined for 17 points a game this season, were held to nine points on 4-of-15 shooting.
Virginia coach Joanne Boyle was not as upbeat as one might expect after a breakthrough win like this. That’s because she defeated her close friend and one-time assistant in Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb. Boyle, who led the Golden Bears to four NCAA trips there, hugged Gottlieb after the loss and the two shared a moment in the locker room hallways. “I don’t think anyone likes to play their friends,” Boyle said.
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In the stands in his Cal jacket was Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera, who made the short drive from Charlotte to Colonial Life Arena. He was a linebacker for the Golden Bears and when he heard the team would be close by, he cleared his schedule even in the crazy, busy time of NFL free agency. “This is something we’re not missing,” he said.