SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The small placards atop the news conference dais served as more than just California players' name cards Sunday. Following the question-and-answer session with Brittany Boyd, Reshanda Gray and Layshia Clarendon -- all underclassmen making their first NCAA tournament appearances -- the trio did not know whether to grab the cards as keepsakes.
"We'll get them after," Golden Bears coach Lindsay Gottlieb ultimately said to a round of laughs.
No veteran herself to the setting, Gottlieb -- in her first year as Cal's coach after a three-year stint at UC Santa Barbara that featured one NCAA tournament appearance -- couldn't help but admit to nerves before stepping on the Joyce Center floor for her team's first-round matchup with Iowa.
"I think it's just a nervous excitement," Gottlieb said. "They're just such nice people at Notre Dame. And there's the guy who's the security guy walking out, and he looked at me and he said, 'Are you a little nervous?' And I said, 'Yeah but, if I wasn't, I don't think I'd be human.' It was a good kind of emotional energy."
No. 8 seed Cal's 84-74 first-round win over ninth-seeded Iowa in the Raleigh Regional proved Gottlieb right, as her young squad overcame a strong shooting afternoon from the Hawkeyes behind rugged inside play, a lethally quick press and the veteran-like play of the freshman point guard Boyd.
Boyd finished with 15 points, 6 rebounds, 8 assists and 6 steals, keying what finished as an 18-11 turnover edge for the Bears, who scored 27 points off those takeaways to the Hawkeyes' 15.
"I was really nervous, if you could tell at the beginning of the game," Boyd, too, confessed. "I just wanted to come into the game, and in the NCAA tournament you're one-and-done. And I couldn't have this be, 'Oh, it was her first tournament game and she blew it.' I was more focused, just focused in, and just wanted to help my teammates out any way possible -- diving on the floor, helping them up. But I would just say my teammates and the veterans calming me down."
Iowa actually matched its season-high in shooting percentage, connecting on 50.8 percent of its attempts, which was also the highest mark Cal had allowed all season. But the Bears' front line of Gray, Gennifer Brandon and Talia Caldwell -- each of whom stands at least 6 feet, 2 inches tall -- proved to be too much inside for the Hawkeyes.
All three of Cal's post players scored in double figures, with each pulling down at least six rebounds. The Bears, who entered with the nation's third best rebounding margin at 13.2, finished with a 41-29 edge on the boards, including a 19-7 advantage on the offensive glass. They scored 20 second-chance points to the Hawkeyes' seven.
"You keep saying you've got to stick with the fundamentals. Hopefully we'll get some over-the-back calls. Make the contact, try to push them back as much as you can," Iowa coach Lisa Bluder recalled telling her players on the sideline. "But I think California can probably run a textbook on how to rebound. They're exceptional at just maintaining that persistence for the basketball. There's so many times where they wouldn't have possession of the ball but they'd tip it up in the air and they'd keep going for it and keep going for it. I love it. I love that relentlessness out there in their offensive rebounding.
"I mean, 19 offensive rebounds they had tonight. And those are very important points for them. I thought our team was pretty cognizant of boxing out, we just weren't able to convert that into some more defensive rebounds."
Cal shot 45.5 percent from the field and just 18.8 percent (3-of-16) from 3, but none of that mattered when Boyd heaved up a trey right before the shot-clock buzzer, banking it in with 6:27 to go and extending her team's lead to 69-54.
The point guard could not help but flash a wide grin while jogging back down the court, the butterflies from starting her first postseason game now a distant memory.
"It's a really, I think, unique group in that sense," Gottlieb said. "We have veterans that aren't seniors but they play a lot of minutes, and they bring that sort of, 'We've been through some hard times, we know what it takes,' level of maturity. And then we have kind of just young, fun-loving, emotional freshmen who just happen to be great players also, and I think it balances each other really well.
"And it creates a unique feel to our team that, again, I think was on display today, and that's who we've been all year. And will we grow in consistency as our young players get older? Sure, but I think it's fun to be in this moment and have that interesting balance between our veterans and our young players."