Close loss spells brighter future for young Bears

STANFORD, Calif. – The Battle of the Bay is back on.

The rivalry has been Stanford’s to lose ever since Tara VanDerveer came to Palo Alto in the mid-1980s to transform the program into a perennial title contender. Even when former coach Joanne Boyle revived the Cal program and led the Bears to national prominence, the Cal women’s basketball team almost never got the best of its Bay Area foe.

Saturday’s battle seemed to be a harbinger of something different within the rivalry. The Bears seemed on par with Stanford for most of the game. Down 14 with eight minutes to go, Cal locked down the formidable Cardinal offense to spur a 22-8 run to send the game into overtime — the first extra period at Maples Pavilion for the squad since it hosted then-No. 1 Tennessee in 2007.

After a nail-biting overtime win like that, how can Stanford’s basketball monopoly in the West Coast not feel threatened by the surging Bears?

But for now after Saturday’s win, the Cardinal can exhale a sigh of relief. Their precious 74-game winning streak at Maples Pavilion is still intact. Their three-year long undefeated record against conference teams still lives. And after the win, Stanford has a three-game lead over second-place Cal, solidifying its chances to win yet another conference championship this season.

While the Cardinal can bask in the present glory as the runaway favorites to win the Pac-12, the Bears are a team built for the future.

It’s astounding to remember that Cal has no seniors, meaning all the current players will come back next year. This team is still growing under first-year head coach Lindsay Gottlieb.

Guard Brittany Boyd – whose Allen Iverson-esque performance produced 19 points and seven rebounds — is only still a freshman, learning college basketball as she plays. Three of the four post players, the group that has been the foundation of the team, are still underclassmen.

In other words, this group of young Bears are more like cubs. Yet they can already stand face-to-face with some of the top basketball giants in the nation.

Of course, the lack of experience on the court can also translate into naivete and recklessness. Early in the game, Boyd took some bad jumpers instead of keeping the ball moving between her teammates. Many Cal players drove head-first into the post with the ball, only to find themselves trapped under a defensive cloak of Cardinal red.

The post players seemed to focus so much on limiting senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike that they left her younger sister, Chiney, easy buckets throughout the game — Chiney finished with a career-high 27 points and 18 rebounds.

Bad decisions and the inability to lock both the Ogwumikes ultimately dug the Bears into a 14-point hole. When a team is down by double-digits in Maples Pavilion against Stanford, it’s almost always game over.

But not with this Bears squad. As it displayed most notably against Colorado, Cal has developed a knack for clawing out of deep deficits to win. Good teams have a gift for finding ways to provide themselves chances to beat the opponents, and the Bears have demonstrated numerous times that they can do that — any time, any place. It will be an exciting rematch when the two face off at Haas Pavilion on March 4.

On Saturday, Cal threw down the gauntlet for the supremacy of Bay Area basketball. And for the first time in a very long  while, the Bears look capable of upsetting the Cardinal.