The invincible never spill their own blood. It is a punishment for lesser mortals but never the rulers at the top. The invincible cruise to victory while the losers retreat to lick their wounds.
That is, until a challenger finds a crack in the invincible armor. After all, even Achilles was a mortal with a weakness.
If the Stanford women’s basketball team has a weakness, it has yet to be exploited by anyone – least of all its Pac-12 opponents. But that won’t stop Cal from doing battle with the Cardinal this Sunday at 6 p.m. in its final game of the regular season.
“We already knew we can compete with them and win a game,” said junior center Talia Caldwell. “This game is completely different. It’s the last game of conference season for both of us.”
That previous game Caldwell was referring to? Quite possibly the most thrilling contest the Cardinal (27-1, 17-0 Pac-12) have experienced in the last five years.
On Jan. 28, the Bears (22-7, 13-4) delivered Stanford its first home overtime thriller since 2007 and its narrowest victory on the season. The Card barely escaped with a victory to preserve its winning record at Maples Pavilion, which now spans 79 straight games. It is the longest active streak in the nation.
Since then, Stanford has won with a frustrating and predictable regularity, while Cal has had to steal more than one close-fought tilt for itself – like the overtime win against a bottom-dwelling Arizona nearly a month ago or the nine-point rematch victory against UCLA a week after.
Both teams have galvanized their guard play since their last meeting: Stanford has instituted Toni Kokenis and Amber Orrange into its starting lineup, while Cal’s Layshia Clarendon has become the team’s de facto playmaker and game-changer.
But Stanford is still Stanford – the team with only one loss in the entire season, the team with the invincible armor, the team led by the unstoppable Ogwumike sisters. Senior Nnemkadi and her sophomore sister Chiney could start on any of the Pac-12 men’s teams. The two forwards average an astounding 21.6 and 16.1 points, respectively.
“If there was a game plan that’s worked for containing the Ogwumikes, then I haven’t seen it,” said Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb.
For the Bears, the answer is still out of reach. With four legitimate threats at center, Cal’s size and depth at the post might ruffle the Ogwumikes but not eliminate them. Last time at Maples Pavilion, the Bears doubled up on Nnemkadi and limited her to a meager 12 points, which only opened up Chiney for major looks and a career-high 27 points.
But a hard and fast answer is still out of reach. The team can only look back to what went wrong at Maples Pavilion in an attempt to find a solution.
Make no mistake, there was plenty that went awry, plenty that could have changed the pace and final score on that January day.
“It’s more about, we lost by three in overtime and we did a lot of things wrong,” Caldwell said. “It’s just another opponent. We want to get that one.”
But there is still that uncertainty, still the “maybe” both Gottlieb and Caldwell use when asked if their team could pull an upset. There’s still the fact that everything — the game plan, the players, the final score — is up in the air.
It’s not a sure bet. But then again, no hard-fought battle ever is.