SPOKANE, Wash. — A strong second half and much better free throw shooting propelled California over LSU, sending the Bears to the round of eight for the first time in program history.
Layshia Clarendon scored 19 points to lead California to a 73-63 victory over LSU on Saturday night.
"We are in the Elite Eight, one game away from New Orleans," Clarendon said. "This is awesome."
In a ragged game in which neither team shot well, California made 26 of 41 free throws to stay ahead of LSU. That was significant because Cal missed eight of its last 11 free throws in its previous game against South Florida, and ended up needing overtime to win.
"We need to step up and hit our free throws," Clarendon said. "That's what we finally did."
Clarendon had just two points in the first half, when the teams were tied at 26. But she scored 17 in the second half as Cal outscored the Lady Tigers 47-37 for the win.
"We were us in the second half. We were Cal," coach Lindsay Gottlieb said. "I'm so incredibly proud of this group."
Gennifer Brandon had 17 points and 13 rebounds, and Brittany Boyd added 14 points for second-seeded Cal (31-3), which will play Georgia in the Spokane Regional final Monday night. Fourth-seeded Georgia beat top-seeded Stanford 61-59 in Saturday's opening semifinal.
Theresa Plaisance had 15 points and 12 rebounds for sixth-seeded LSU (22-12).
Adrienne Webb, who also scored 15 for LSU, said her team gave Cal too many chances at the free throw line in the second half.
"We were putting them on the line and they were knocking down free throws," Webb said.
Plaisance said the plan was to send Cal to the free throw line in hopes they would miss and LSU could get the rebound and score.
The Lady Tigers were in the game until a scoring drought late in the second half ended their chances. They were seeking their first berth in the round of eight since 2008.
After the score was tied at 26 at halftime, Cal opened the second half with an 8-2 run for a 34-28 lead.
"Our intensity might have slacked up a little bit," Webb said. "We came out a little flat."
But Webb, Shanece McKinney and Bianca Lutley scored consecutive baskets for LSU to tie the score at 34-34.
The teams traded the lead several times after that.
Mikayla Miles hit a 3-pointer to cap a 9-2 run that put Cal ahead 46-40.
Brandon sank two free throws and a field goal to help the Bears take a 54-45 advantage, their biggest lead to that point, with 7:44 left. Boyd's 3-pointer pushed Cal's lead to 58-46 with 5:20 left.
LSU, meanwhile, went more than five minutes without a field goal and fell behind 62-46. Webb broke LSU's field goal drought with 2:28 left in the game, but by then the Lady Tigers trailed 64-49.
Cal shot just 37.9 percent in the game, but made 50 percent of its shots in the second half. Cal had the edge in rebounding, 42-41.
The Lady Tigers shot 38.8 percent, and they committed 16 turnovers to 11 for Cal.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said her team missed too many easy shots. But she was proud of her team for overcoming adversity and clawing their way to the round of 16.
"These young ladies came together," Caldwell said. "They put LSU back on the map as a dominant program."
Neither team shot well in a low-scoring first half.
California took a 9-4 lead before LSU went on an 8-2 run to go up 18-16. The teams traded baskets after that and two free throws by Cal's Brandon tied the score 26-all at halftime.
LSU shot 40 percent in the first half, and was led by Plaisance's eight points. McKinney, a 6-foot-4 forward, had five blocks in the first half for the Lady Tigers. Cal shot just 29 percent in the half, and Clarendon was held to just two points.
"I really talked to them at the half about not being frustrated," Gottlieb said. "They try to disrupt you and make you uncomfortable."
LSU and Cal were playing for the first time since their sole previous meeting in 1981.
Cal's 31 wins extended the team record set this season. Cal tied Stanford for the Pac-12 regular-season title, and lost to UCLA in the conference tournament.
Clarendon credited Gottlieb with keeping the players pointed in the direction that has led to the round of eight.
"As a player, you just kind of try to play day by day and practice and you're in the tournament and you just try to stay really focused on every game," Clarendon said. "I think Lindsay, of all people, knew we were capable of this."