NEW ORLEANS Cal's patience with Brittany Boyd has paid off.
More mature and controlled after a season of learning on the fly, the sophomore point guard has helped guide the Bears to the NCAA Tournament's Final Four for the first time. Cal faces Louisville today at New Orleans Arena.
"She brought a spark to us. She plays with so much intensity and love for the game," teammate Eliza Pierre said of Boyd. "We needed that."
Boyd arrived at Cal last season with skills that made her electric but a bit reckless on the court. Nifty passing, ball-hawking defense and speed were all part of her game.
Though her flash came with some unforced turnovers and wild drives to the basket, coach Lindsay Gottlieb was willing to be patient with the homegrown talent, figuring the reward of having Boyd run the offense was greater than the risk.
"I knew that going with a very exciting, dynamic freshman point guard, there were going to be some times where you say, 'OK, that's a growth moment,' but a lot more times than that, you see the spectacular," Gottlieb said. "I wanted to give her that rope and that empowerment to be her, and she has continued to stay with us and try to get better every step of the way."
Said Boyd, "I grew up, in a sense. I understand the game more."
Gottlieb was well aware of Boyd's potential coming out of high school. The Berkeley High star was the first recruit Gottlieb called to keep on board when she took the Cal job in April 2011, and Boyd became the Bears' starting point guard almost immediately.
Boyd earned Pacific-12 Conference all-freshman honors last season after averaging 10.2 points and 4.8 assists. But her average of 3.9 turnovers bothered her, and she vowed to get better.
"I just had to understand when to push, when not to push, when to pass it, who to pass it to," said Boyd, who is averaging 2.9 turnovers this season. "I just had to settle down. I was so nervous."
Shooting, strength and fitness were her main focuses over the summer. These days, Boyd plays her best when the lights are the brightest. She is averaging 13.8 points and 7.3 assists in four tournament games.
"When she's in the zone, she can be one of the greatest point guards in the game," teammate Layshia Clarendon said.
Boyd, Clarendon and Pierre today face the task of slowing down a hot-shooting group of guards led by Shoni Schimmel and Antonita Slaughter. Louisville reached the Final Four thanks partly to 64 percent shooting (16 for 25) from three-point range in its upset of defending national champion Baylor. The Cardinals then made eight three-pointers against Tennessee.
"It's going to be a very physical, very fast-paced game," Boyd said. "Two great backcourts."
Notre Dame-Connecticut in New Orleans Skylar Diggins has accomplished nearly everything she could have imagined in her Notre Dame career. The only thing missing is a national championship.
To get her final chance at that elusive title, Diggins and the Irish today must defeat the Big East Conference rival Huskies for an unprecedented fourth straight time this season.
"I don't think the past three games matter," Diggins said. "They are a team that when you play against them, they can get in your head. When you think of UConn basketball, you think of all the championships."
Notre Dame has taken over the rivalry, winning seven of the last eight meetings. This season, the Irish won by one point, two points and, in triple overtime, nine points.
"We came out of each game with 'Wow, we didn't play well,' " Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. "We can do a lot better."
Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma wasn't concerned about the Irish's recent run of success.
"The only thing that matters now is what happens (tonight)," he said. "That's it."
AP awards Baylor senior Brittney Griner was named the Associated Press Player of the Year for the second straight season, and McGraw was named Coach of the Year.
Griner received 37 votes from a 40-member national media panel. Stanford junior Chiney Ogwumike received two votes, and Diggins collected the other.
Meanwhile, Griner said she was ready to take up an offer from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to draft her. She said she's open to an NBA tryout after the WNBA season. Griner is expected to be the first overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury in the April 15 draft.
"The WNBA is where I'm at. That's where I'm going," she said. "After that, if I get a shot, why turn down something like that? That's big, even if you don't make it. Hey, at least you tried. Somebody pushed the envelope."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.