STANFORD -- It wasn't supposed to end this way for the Cal women's basketball team.
Not with Davis High graduate Ashley Walker collapsing to the floor with her hands over her eyes to hide the tears. Not with Devanei Hampton beside her in equally undeniable pain.
The Bears' historic season ended with agonizing heartbreak Monday night at Maples Pavilion. No. 3 Cal was seconds away from punching its ticket to its first trip to the Sweet 16 when an improbable combination of missed opportunities, controversy and a little bit of luck changed everything. Instead, No. 6 George Washington is moving on to Greensboro, N.C., and the Bears are returning to Berkeley, forced to digest an agonizing 55-53 second-round loss.
George Washington forward Sarah-Jo Lawrence hauled in a missed shot by Kimberly Beck and scored as time expired to send the Colonials to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in school history.
They'll face No. 2 Rutgers, a 69-58 winner over Iowa State.
Afterward, George Washington coach Joe McKeown called the contest "one of the great games in GW history."
For Cal coach Joanne Boyle, however, it has to be one of the most difficult of her career.
"This game does not define our season," she said. "I'm just disappointed for (the players) in the outcome because they deserved the opportunity to move forward, and that didn't happen."
Here's what did happen: The Bears (27-7) led for most of the game. They managed to survive despite Hampton and Walker being saddled with foul trouble. But they couldn't overcome a late offensive dry spell and one costly turnover.
Cal managed one field goal over the final 4:09 yet still had a chance to keep its season alive until Lawrence drove the middle of the key and tied the game at 53-53 with 12.1 seconds left.
Sophomore guard Natasha Vital then pushed the ball toward the Cal bench and picked up her dribble with 5.7 seconds to play. Vital attempted to call a timeout, but referee Amy Bonner saw her shuffle her feet and ruled Vital took an extra step.
The Bears were disputing both events after the game.
"I thought I called a timeout," Vital said through tears in the Cal locker room.
Replays of the stretch showed assistant coach Kevin Morrison leaping off the bench and signaling for a timeout, but only the head coach is permitted to do so. Boyle claimed she and Vital attempted to call a timeout. She also questioned Bonner's call.
"We checked (the monitor) a few times," Boyle said. "She didn't travel.
"Things happen for a reason, and I don't know why the outcome is the way it is," Boyle said. "This game doesn't define our season. We changed Cal women's basketball in a very short period of time."
Junior guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, who finished with 14 points and nine rebounds, wasn't so forthcoming.
"We lost," Gray-Lawson said. "It's that simple. We lost."
It's a bitter reality for a Cal team that enjoyed a season like no other. The Bears set a new standard in almost every way. They recorded more wins than any other Cal team. They challenged for the Pac-10 title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1993. They just couldn't get it done down the stretch.