BERKELEY, Calif. -- Imani McGee-Stafford was getting herself prepared in the moments before Sunday's second-round game at Cal when she latched on to something that Texas strength and conditioning coach Shaun McPherson said: "Make your legacy."
The Longhorns' 6-foot-7 center has been something of the game's next "big girl" -- who hadn't quite arrived. A leg injury to start the season kept her off the floor for the first eight games. She spent most of the next 24 playing herself into shape and into a consistent rhythm, trying to find her place on a team trying to find its way after January's season-ending knee injury to leading scorer and rebounder Nneka Enemkpali.
But these past two games have changed everything. Her prospects as a pro. The Longhorns' potential as an elite program. And, dare we say, their legacy.
McGee-Stafford was the centerpiece of a dominate-the-paint strategy on both ends of the floor that propelled fifth-seeded Texas to a 73-70 win over No. 4 seed Cal at Haas Pavilion on Sunday and into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.
"This is how we start our legacy," McGee-Stafford said. "We were able to do something that hasn't been done in over a decade and it just goes to show that hard work eventually pays off."
McGee-Stafford followed up a career day in the first round on Friday against Western Kentucky (24 points and 15 rebounds) with another against Cal. McGee-Stafford went for 20 points and 11 rebounds against the overmatched Bears, who didn't have an answer for her or fellow Texas post player Kelsey Lang, a 6-5 freshman who tallied 14 points and six rebounds.
"I can't say enough about how [McGee-Stafford] has performed, even going back to the Big 12 tournament," Texas coach Karen Aston said. "I thought that I had seen a different look in her eyes a week or two ago -- that she was feeling better about herself and her conditioning level was back to par and her confidence level was high. ...
"If Imani keeps playing the way she has been playing, our team has a load of potential, because she impacts the game remarkably."
McGee Stafford and Lang -- the pair played in tandem on the floor Sunday as much as they had all season -- allowed Texas to cut off the paint from Cal, forcing the Bears to rely heavily on perimeter offense. And their size advantage made them unstoppable when they got deep into the paint, pushing Texas to a 46-18 scoring advantage inside.
The Texas team that was reeling after it lost Enemkpali in January -- losing eight of 10 games and any chance at a Big 12 title after coming in as the preseason favorites -- has regrouped in March. The Longhorns have won nine of their past 11 games by learning to lean on others -- such as McGee-Stafford, Empress Davenport (11 points, 5 assists) and freshman point guard Brooke McCarty, who came off the bench against Cal to score 16 points.
McGee-Stafford was still working her way into form when Enemkpali got hurt, playing a little more than 10 minutes a game. She is now conditioned and confident and playing her best basketball. The same can be said for the deep, balanced, rejuvenated Longhorns.
"A month ago, I don't think anyone would have seen this coming," Aston said of her team. "We had to figure out which people were willing to get in the foxhole with us. And it was hard. We are not yet where we want to be, but we are making progress."
The Longhorns are peaking just in time to play for a likely Sweet 16 matchup against Connecticut in Albany, a team that will demand their best effort and more.
Cal, meanwhile, is finished much earlier than it hoped after a game in which the Bears were made to pay dearly for their deficiencies.
Bears post Reshanda Gray, who will be a top pick in the WNBA draft, was a non-factor. Limited to 19 minutes because of foul trouble, she finished with seven points and three rebounds, taking just six shots from the floor.
Point guard Brittany Boyd barely missed a triple-double with 17 points, 10 rebounds and nine rebounds. And sophomore Mercedes Jefflo picked up the slack on the outside, hitting six 3-pointers to finish with 22 points.
But Cal couldn't making anything happen inside, turned over the ball 20 times and was felled by a six-minute scoreless stretch to start the second half as Texas grabbed a 12-point lead.
"The start of the second half was a disaster," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "When they have [McGee Stafford and Lang] out there, we needed to pressure the guards and they weren't as rattled as we needed them to be. ... We needed to turn them over in the backcourt."
Boyd, who exhorted her teammates throughout the second half and tried desperately to keep the team in the game, said she has "no regrets."
"My experience here is everything I could ask for," Boyd said. "And I'm ready for my next step, my next life."
Gottlieb got emotional talking about her two senior leaders, who led the Bears to a Final Four in 2013 and leave as two of the best players in the history of the program and the Pac-12.
"What a ride with these two," Gottlieb said. "They are ready. They will be wonderful pros. They have taken me on the ride of my life.
"I think we hoped this season would be about celebrating championships. And it turned out to be about 'almosts.' Sometimes you don't get everything you want. But you can learn a lot of important things along the way."
Meanwhile, Texas' ride continues. Conventional wisdom dictates it might not last much longer, but moving into the Sweet 16 for the first time in 11 years is the kind of effort that gets people's attention. And it is the beginning, perhaps, of a new legacy.