Closing time: Cal women’s basketball caps off emotional week, defeats No. 14 Stanford, 78-66

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Maya Valluru/File

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It was as gritty, intense and emotional as originally scripted, but even the players themselves had to have been amazed by the way things unfolded.

After weeks of struggle, frustration and the like, the Cal women’s basketball team finally got its long-awaited marquee win, taking its final home game of the season, 78-66, over rival No. 14 Stanford — undoubtedly its biggest victory of the year.

“Time after time, we came up with big plays,” said head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “I’m just super happy for this team.”

With all the talk surrounding the Cardinal’s recent resurgence and Cal’s inability to snatch a critical win, it all came crashing down in one of the Pac-12’s best games of this season. Senior day. Hustle plays everywhere. Clutch shooting down the stretch.

Stanford versus Cal at its finest.

When guard Mikayla Cowling and forward Penina Davidson first committed to play for the Bears as high school seniors, they did so under very different circumstances. While Cowling drove a mere 30 miles to her future home, Davidson flew halfway across the world from her native New Zealand.

Four years later, they stood in unison for the final time at Haas Pavilion as the lone 2018 seniors for the Bears (18-9, 9-7). Despite their dissimilar upbringings, the pair entered their senior day rematch with Stanford (19-9, 13-3) committed to the same goal they’ve shared since day one — win the day.

And that they did, earning a huge tournament resume booster and doing it at the hands of their archrivals. Cowling’s last field goal at Haas Pavilion came with 2:32 to go and with Cal leading by 4 points — a left-wing three that pushed the lead to 7 — as the Bears pulled away after Stanford rallied early in the final quarter.

It was Cal’s first win over a ranked opponent this season, after nine previous failed attempts. It was also Stanford’s first loss since Jan. 21 at UCLA.

With some fans waving New Zealand flags in the stands and others sporting “Cowling” T-shirts, the stage was set for the second Battle of the Bay in three days, with the Cardinal claiming round one on the Farm, 74-69.

A near even mix of red and blue was prevalent throughout Haas Pavilion on Saturday afternoon, and with the atmosphere’s intensity at an all-time high, both teams showed out in a big way.

“This is for our seniors,” said Cal junior guard Asha Thomas. “We wanted to win their last home game here. They did their job and it was just our job to add on to that.”

After a sluggish first matchup with Stanford’s defense on Thursday evening, junior forward Kristine Anigwe and freshman guard Kianna Smith made a significant attempt to get themselves going early. Anigwe established herself as an interior threat after struggling mightily against Stanford junior Alanna Smith and senior Kaylee Johnson just two days prior.

As for Cal’s Kianna Smith, the freshman combined with Thomas for a very efficient first half, nailing back-to-back threes midway through the second quarter as part of her 14 points on 6 of 10 shooting for the game. On a day when the contributions of Cal’s seniors were celebrated, Kianna Smith provided a reminder that the future of the Bears has a budding star in its own right.

Whether it was winning a 50-50 ball, pumping up the crowd in transition or nailing a clutch three, Cal’s players outplayed Stanford’s right from the tip. Thomas strung together a handful of magnificent moves in traffic, finishing left and right on her way to a game-high 25 points on 8 of 16 shooting.

“Cal was extremely aggressive, and their aggressiveness was what they needed. … They came out with a great game plan and got after it,” said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.

Defensively, the Bears overcame a pair of 20-point performances, as senior guard Brittany McPhee oftentimes beat Cal’s defense with better offense, finishing with 24 points. Meanwhile, Stanford’s Alanna Smith found her stroke late in the second half, recording 20 points but on just 7 of 21 shooting.

Up two at the half after a back-and-forth first 20 minutes, Cal opened up the third quarter on a quick 8-0 run, ignited by the Bears’ starting five. In addition, sophomores CJ West and Jaelyn Brown stepped up huge in their roles off the bench, accentuated by Brown’s dagger of a three with 1:29 left in the game after a scramble on the offensive end.

Brown’s season-high seven rebounds complemented Anigwe’s hard-earned nine, as the Bears outrebounded their rivals an astonishing 46-28, including at least three each from eight different players.

For all their shooting struggles — a 34.8 percent clip for the game and just 21.7 from three — the Cardinal found themselves down by just 2 points inside of four minutes to play.

That’s when a string of cold-blooded threes — Thomas, Cowling and Brown — buried Stanford’s distraught emotions, one after the other.

“Beating Stanford, at home, on (Cowling and Davidson’s) special night — it was great,” Kianna Smith said.

As a special tribute to one of the most respected players in recent program history, New Zealand’s national anthem was played prior to the “Star Spangled Banner,” and the New Zealand flag was taped below the American flag in the rafters.

Davidson responded to the reception with heart and hustle for 23 minutes of playing time, as she and Cowling received a raucous ovation when Gottlieb pulled the pair with 18 seconds remaining.

“As a head coach, you get some dream moments, and it’s not for you, it’s for these young people to experience that feeling that celebration feeling,” Gottlieb said. “Today was that day.”

Josh Yuen is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].