by Mirin Fader / @mirinfader

If you’re guarding Layshia Clarendon, you might want to back up a little. Far enough back so she doesn’t quickly cross you, but not too much, because she’ll pull up for a mid-range jumper without hesitation.

In the time it takes to figure out the appropriate distance, Clarendon will already be at the rim.

Years before the senior playmaker was getting past opposing guards with a single dribble for No. 2-seed California (30-3), 12-year-old Clarendon played one-on-one with her cousin Trinidee Trice, who now plays for Cal State San Bernardino, every night for hours in Clarendon’s backyard.

“That’s how I developed my one-on-one skillset, just playing against her over and over again,” Clarendon said. “I learned how to get around someone, and how to deal when they cut you off. I didn’t want to be a limited player. I didn’t want people to say she can’t drive, or she can’t shoot.

“I didn’t want to be stopped one-on-one by anyone. That was my goal, to make more than one person have to step up and stop you.”

Clarendon’s dedication to improving each aspect of her game allowed Cal to flourish at the same time she did, as the team won a co-Pac-12 championship with Stanford this season for the first time in the program’s history, in addition to reaching the Sweet 16 for just the second time. And just as her 8.9 points a game as a freshman increased to 16 points in her final season, Clarendon’s leadership has also improved.

As a scorer with point guard sensibilities, Clarendon was asked to become more vocal this year than she had been as an underclassman.

“I really stepped out of my comfort zone these last few years, especially this year,” she said. “This year I’m the one always looking at the bench, seeing what we’re calling, to see if we’re in the right press or zone offense.

“And if we aren’t in the set, or something goes wrong, [head coach Lindsay Gottlieb] will say to me, ‘Did I not tell you to make sure every single person knew?’ I’ve learned to take complete ownership of being vocal and making sure everyone knows where to go.”

One might assume speaking up would come natural to someone with as brazen a hairstyle as Clarendon—a golden-streaked mohawk. But even so, she still blends in with the team.

“A lot of times we want to play through Layshia, but that doesn’t mean that she’s going to shoot it,” Gottlieb said, who is also a finalist for the Naismith Coach of the Year award. “She makes really good decisions, and she helps us get into a flow. Her presence is really important to our success, and she’s played all year long like a veteran All-American.”

Clarendon, a two-time Pac-12 First-Team member, was named a Wade Trophy finalist, a Naismith Player of the Year candidate, and earned the Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year award with a 3.47 GPA. And yetshe is just one of many integral pieces to a deep Cal roster. The Bears are athletic in the post with Gennifer Brandon’s 11.3 boards a night, and are quick on the break with Brittany Boyd pushing the tempo, putting up 12.7 points and 5.5 assists a night.

 

Cal went on a 15-game winning streak in conference play, the longest in school history, including a 58-56 come-from-behind win against Oregon State on senior night (February 24) where Clarendon dropped 26 points to cut a 17-point deficit. Cal finished with the highest scoring offense in the Pac-12 (72.2 points per game) and led the league in rebounds per game as well (44.5). The Bears even snapped Stanford’s 81-game conference winning streak on the Cardinals’ home floor with a 67-55 victory (January 13).

For Clarendon and the rest of the seniors, the thought of reaching the Sweet 16 seemed unlikely a few years ago, when the team failed to live up to the hype that sprouted from a 2010 WNIT championship Clarendon’s freshman year. When the team did not make the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row during her sophomore campaign, head coach Joanne Boyle left to coach Virginia.

“Our senior group really kept the team together. We were coachless for a few weeks, with no clue what our future looked like,” Clarendon said. “But we still pushed each other. We said that we needed to make Cal better, that this wasn’t acceptable.

“We’ve been there from the start. We know what it feels like to have a crap of a season. We carry all of that experience within us, and we appreciate everything we’ve gone through, because it made us who we are.”

In a first round game in Lubbock, TX, Cal defeated No. 15-seed Fresno State 90-76 (March 23) behind 19 points from Clarendon, then defeated No. 10-seed South Florida 82-78 in overtime (March 25) with Clarendon putting up 27. The Bears will face No. 6 LSU on Saturday in Spokane for a chance to reach the Elite Eight.

With all four years blurring into 40 minutes of play, realizing that the next game could be her last, Clarendon tries to focus on the now, even though the WNBA could be next.

“It’s in the back of my mind, way back, because I’m not ready to be done playing with these ladies,” she said. “The WNBA will come when it comes. I’m trying not to look at mock drafts, or who’s going first. I only want to focus on our next game.”

Mirin Fader is a sportswriter based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Dime Magazine, Clippers.com and WNBA.com (L.A. Sparks). All of Mirin’s work can be found at mirinfader.com.