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PICTURE THIS

Taking his spot on the dais before the post-game news conference, California forward Tony Gonzalez abruptly leaned back, pulled out a camera and photographed the gathered media.

"I've got to take pictures," he said, beaming. "I want to reminisce on this in about 30 years, probably sooner. And I want to be able to show my grandkids."

Without the glossy 8-by-10s as proof, even his loved ones might not believe he and his Golden Bear teammates had such a Kodak moment: beating Princeton and Villanova in the NCAA Tournament's East Regional last weekend to reach the Sweet 16.

Who could blame them?

Cal (23-8), which plays North Carolina (26-6) Friday in Syracuse, N.Y., has overcome an upheaval in the past year unparalleled in the San Francisco bay area since the big one of 1906. The Bears did it thanks to a new, easygoing coach and a tightknit but unheralded, eclectic group of players.

"It's an honor for any program to get to the Sweet 16; it puts you in an elite group," said coach Ben Braun, hired from Eastern Michigan in September.

"There were a number of times this year when we didn't get ranked, and we never seemed to worry about that. I said, "Hey. The true compliment to you, the true reward, is being there at the end of the year.' Now we're one of the top 16, and that's a statement about our perseverance."

The program's tribulations began last March, on the eve of the NCAA Tournament, when multitalented sophomore guard Jelani Gardner, the heir apparent to Jason Kidd, announced he planned to transfer to Pepperdine. In May, sophomore forward Tremaine Fowlkes, the Pac-10 Player of the Year two years ago, decided to transfer to Fresno State.

In June, forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the conference Player of the Year and the national freshman of the year last season, opted for the NBA draft. He was the No. 3 pick.

Then in late August, Todd Bozeman, who had taken over the program in the middle of the 1992-93 season and led it to a 63-25 record, was forced to resign amid allegations of recruiting improprieties and trouble with a woman who alleged Bozeman threatened her and made phone calls with sexual overtones.

The final blow came Feb. 22 when senior guard Ed Gray, the nation's second-leading scorer (24.8 points per game) and the soon-to-be-named conference Player of the Year, broke a bone in his right foot and was lost for the season.

Yet through it all, Cal survived.

And has thrived.

"The biggest thing I learned from coach Bozeman is that it's through times of adversity that you see the true measure of a man," said senior guard Randy Duck, his left leg propped up on a folding chair with ice bags draped around his swollen, discolored ankle after the team's 75-68 upset of Villanova on Saturday.

Stripped of both the NBA lottery-caliber talent they had relied upon and the coach they adored, the remaining Bears were forced to grow up.

"We knew coach Braun was coming in blind into a situation he really didn't have any control over," senior forward Alfred Grigsby said, "and it was up to us as players to take responsibility and live with the consequences.

"If we failed, it would be on us. We said, "Let's listen to the man, do what he says and just have faith in him.' We all had faith in coach Bozeman, we loved him, but he's not here, and it was time to move on."

When Grigsby talks, the other Bears usually listen.

A tenacious rebounder and Bozeman's first big-time recruit, Grigsby has had five surgeries _ on his back, buttocks, and a knee, ankle and finger _ during the past three seasons. He played in just 19 of the team's 85 games, missing the NCAA Tournament in 1994 and 1996.

When Cal officials approached him about asking for an almost unheard-of sixth season of eligibility, Grigsby wasn't keen on coming back because of all the turmoil. He acquiesced and was stunned when the NCAA approved another season for him in August.

After wins against Iowa, Massachusetts and Illinois, the Bears stumbled when Pac-10 play began. They lost to Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. But they won nine of their next 10, including at UCLA to end the Bruins' 18-game home winning streak against conference opponents. Then Gray went down.

"People expected us to panic and get desperate," Grigsby said.

"That made us come together more," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez, like Grigsby, is someone the rest of the Bears heed. He's an All-America tight end and projected first-round NFL draft pick playing basketball for the love of it.

Inserted into the starting lineup when Gray was injured, Gonzalez used his size, quickness and soft shooting touch to help Cal close the regular season with wins over Arizona State and Arizona.

"Todd's taken a lot of criticism over the last year or two," Braun said of his predecessor, "and the one thing I hope people can realize is that Todd recruited most of these kids. He deserves a lot of credit for that. In addition to finding some talented players, these players have some character, too."

Against Princeton in the first round of the East Regional, the No. 5-seeded Bears had to rally from a six-point halftime deficit to win 55-52. Against Villanova, Gonzalez scored a season-high 23 points and held Tim Thomas, the Big East's top newcomer, scoreless in the second half to help send Cal to the Sweet 16 for just the second time since 1960.

"What made me mad is that people didn't give us a chance," Gonzalez said. "That's what I like, looking in people's faces and seeing the look of disbelief."

Picture that.

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