SPOKANE, Wash. -- Second-seeded Cal has passed some agonizing tests to reach the Sweet 16 where it expects another big challenge Saturday night against Louisiana State.
The Golden Bears (30-3) escaped the second round Monday with an 82-78 overtime victory against South Florida after squandering a 10-point lead with a minute left. They also endured four close victories in Pac-12 play.
The perseverance, however, isn't surprising on a team with three members carrying burdens no one should have to bear. Gennifer Brandon, Eliza Pierre and Tierra Rogers have leaned on one another throughout their careers while dealing with the grief of family members suffering violent deaths.
"They don't just survive, they thrive," Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said Friday before the team's practice at Spokane Arena.
The women's narratives have underscored the resolve of a women's basketball team that is as tightly bound as a ball of string.
"They have been through life-changing things," sophomore point guard Brittany Boyd said. "That's what makes this team" handle adversity on the court.
It's part of the personality that has led to the Bears' first 30-victory season in program history and a national ranking as high as No. 5.
For Brandon, a redshirt junior forward from Sylmar, the ordeal began in 1997 when her father was killed in a police shootout after being mistaken for an armed robbery suspect. Gregory Brandon, drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics in 1984, was 34.
It was the start of a downhill slide for the Brandons. The 6-foot-2 forward has said her mother, Valencia, struggled with alcoholism, and she and her four siblings often lived in hotels. Valencia eventually lost custody of the children when Gennifer and sister Kimberly were in high school.
Their three brothers were placed in foster care but Kimberly, who graduated last year after playing at Arizona State, has adopted the youngest two, who are still juveniles.
Kimberly was following the path of L.A. coaches Andre and Michelle Chevalier, who adopted the Brandon girls in 2006.
"They came in our lives when my mom was at rock bottom," said Brandon, who averages 12.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. "They are in a way our guardian angels."
Brandon expects to play professionally after graduating but also wants to work in law enforcement. Kimberly, 23, has taken an exam to be a probation officer.
Although Gennifer doesn't advertise her background, she is willing to share with teammates or friends if it can help.
All three women have helped the Bears more than they might claim.
"They brighten up my world," Boyd said.
Pierre, a 5-7 senior guard from Pasadena, sought comfort from Brandon and Rogers after her brother was murdered in 2011.
When Pierre got the call about her brother, Rogers, her roommate, was in the other room. Wilson Pierre, 22, and another man had been murdered during an altercation at a party, according to a Los Angeles Police Department news release.
The incident brought back nightmares for Rogers, whose father, Terrell, was killed outside one of her high school games when she was a junior at Sacred Heart Cathedral in San Francisco.
Two years later as a Berkeley freshman Rogers collapsed and stopped breathing during a workout. Her condition was diagnosed as a genetic heart disease that ended her playing career. Physicians implanted a defibrillator to help the heart function.
"Time is precious," said Rogers, who will graduate this year and has remained a part of the team. "We're learning how to be in the moment with each other."
Brandon, 22, said the clichéd phrases ring true: take it one day at a time, one game at a time or one step at a time.
"When you're so much in the moment it helps to forget, to just keep what's good in front of you and appreciate the things you have at the moment," she said.
Because tragedy struck Pierre last, she has been most appreciative of the team's support. She described the support as empowering.
"Eliza was that one kid everybody wanted to see make it," said Brian Crichlow, Pierre's club coach at West Coast Premier.
The senior is leaving Cal as an All-Pac-12 defensive team and academic team selection. Crichlow said Pierre never wavered from who she was, but the player credited the Bears coaches and players for making it a reality.
"I can't be strong without strong people around me," Pierre said.
Cal hopes that strength takes them all the way to the Final Four.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.
Stanford vs. Georgia at Spokane, Wash., 6:04 p.m., ESPN2
Cal vs LSU at Spokane, 8:32 p.m., ESPN2
Redshirt Mikaela Ruef will pay steep price to continue at Stanford.
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