SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — California (Pa.) has been riding a wave of emotion most of the season. On Tuesday in their quarterfinal win against Nova Southeastern, they seemed to ride it a little more.
The Vulcans (30-4) defeated Nova Southeastern 84-79 in overtime, and for the 18th consecutive game, the players from Cal raised the No. 44 in the air on their fingers, and chanted “Shanice” as the final buzzer sounded.
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Shanice Clark, a 21-year-old Cal senior, was found dead in her apartment on Jan. 18, and the Cal players have dedicated this season to her. Preliminary medical reports indicated that Clark choked on a piece of gum while she was sleeping, but that report was updated on March 16 — the same day Cal defeated Bloomsburg in the Regional Final to reach the Elite Eight in Sioux Falls.
The county coroner has now ruled that she died of complications from the sickle cell trait. No matter the cause of death, the unfortunate circumstance has brought this team together, playing inspired basketball.
“We always say she’s with us,” Cal head coach Jess Strom said. “We probably shouldn’t have won today’s game, and we probably shouldn’t have won our regional final game either. But somehow, someway; she’s helping us out.”
Cal nearly let one get away against Nova Southeastern, but a surge in overtime and a steal and basket by Emma Mahady in the waning moments sealed the victory. Mahady finished with a game-high 24 points and grabbed five rebounds, and the Vulcans held on down the stretch to reach the semifinals for the first time since 2004 when they won the national championship.
It took some time, but Cal was finally able to break away from a tight game midway through the second half and eventually built their biggest lead of the game at 69-60 with 5:40 to play.
At that point, Cal looked to be in great shape as the game featured 15 ties and 12 lead changes. But Nova Southeastern went on a run of its own after the nine-point deficit, and tied the game with nine seconds to play on a pair of free throws.
But the Vulcans, who’ve won eight in a row and 16 of their past 17 games, never trailed in overtime.
“I think we did everything possible to lose that game,” Strom said. “I never know if these kids have one more in them, but they just keep coming up with big plays and they have a refuse-to-lose attitude. We’ve been carrying that with us throughout these playoffs, and I hope we have two more in us.”
Clark’s No. 44 can be found everywhere near the Cal bench and players. It’s on their shooting shirts and tennis shoes. Senior guard Kaitlynn Fratz raised her left arm during Tuesday’s press conference to reveal a red “44” that had been written on her bandaging around her wrist.
“I think it’s kind of an unsaid thing, but she’s always there,” Strom said. “These kids realize it’s more about life than basketball, but basketball got them through that situation, and it’s still getting them through it now. It just made all of us closer. They try to win for her now, and it’s kind of a bigger purpose.”