With less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Cal women’s basketball team trailing by two, No. 15 Stanford had the ball looking to extend its lead and tighten its hold on the game. The Friday night Haas Pavilion crowd roared. The air was enveloped by the noise of stomping feet.
But the Bears’ defense couldn’t hold on.
They allowed Stanford’s Erica McCall to convert a jumper and push the lead to 54-50 with 2:25 remaining.
The Cardinal (19-5, 9-3 Pac-12) would go on to hold Cal (11-12, 2-10) back for the rest of the game to win, 60-55, giving Stanford its second win over the Bears this week, despite a 3-18 shooting performance from the Cardinal’s star guard, Lili Thompson.
“I’m sad and kind of angry in some ways, but also hopeful and also disappointed,” said Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb. “This is kind of the rollercoaster this team has taken me on and we’ve taken each other on.”
Cal did a good job of spreading the ball around early on offense to players other than their star freshman, Kristine Anigwe — something it has struggled to do this season. Defenses have taken advantage of Cal’s insistence on feeding the ball to Anigwe by doubling the forward and forcing turnovers. Instead, the Bears turned to junior forward Courtney Range early and often, as she scored six of Cal’s first nine points. While she missed all four of her early three-point attempts, Range was consistently able to convert in the paint, and when that failed, she was able to get to the free throw line. She ended the first quarter with a game-leading eight points.
Much like they did when they lost to the Cardinal on Tuesday, the Bears got out to a moderate lead in the first quarter, 18-13 (Cal led 15-8 after one frame in the teams’ first matchup). But a more important development for the Bears than their early lead may have been the return of sophomore guard Gabby Green, who had missed the last five games.
Green got off to an impressive start, draining a three on her first shot of the game when she subbed in midway through the first quarter. But her contributions were felt all over the game, as she chipped in a couple of assists and a block, while taking much of the ball-handling load off of freshman Asha Thomas’ shoulders, leaving the guard to spot up behind the three-point line, where she is most comfortable.
The teams combined for 61 points in the first half despite weak shooting nights, with neither team converting more than 40 percent of its shots before the break. Cal and Stanford compensated for this in similar ways, corralling 10 offensive rebounds apiece in the first half.
With Green back to acquiesce some of Cal’s depth concerns and Range getting hot from beyond the arc — she converted two threes in the second frame — the Bears built their lead to 34-27 going into halftime without having trailed.
Stanford came out in the third quarter looking eager to change this, and the Cardinal, who have one of the Pac-12’s best defenses, did so, going on a 13-0 run coming out of halftime. Stanford took its first lead with five minutes and 43 seconds left in the third period aided by lackluster Cal shooting and a defensive effort that was even worse. The Cardinal’s defense continued to dominate for the rest of the quarter, helping to compensate for a period that saw them shoot only 5-19 from the floor. Stanford held Cal to 1-10 from the floor in the quarter, while also grabbing five more offensive boards to help it build its lead to 42-38 heading into the last quarter.
The Cardinal never relinquished its lead, as the Bears’ offense struggled throughout in the face of a defense that took away everything Cal generally prioritizes on offense. Most importantly, they consistently double-teamed Anigwe as soon as she was passed the ball and took advantage of her propensity to hold onto the ball even in the face of defensive pressure. This forced Anigwe into a series of turnovers, and she finished with four in the game.
The giveaways also changed Anigwe’s approach in the post, as she consistently looked rushed, as if she was trying to get the shot up before a double team could get to her. This probably led to Anigwe’s poor shooting performance in the game, as she only made 33.3 percent of her shots and more importantly, only attempted six field goals in the game. Anigwe still managed to put up a solid statline with 12 points mostly behind her successful trips to the charity stripe where she made all eight of her free throws, but this wasn’t her best game by any means.
Cal’s offensive problems were compounded by a second half in which the team couldn’t hit a single three until Range, who finished with 25 points, hit one to cut the lead to three with 26 seconds left in the game. The Cardinal hit their free throws to end the game and hold off the Bears, despite another basket by Range with less than a second left.
“There’s a reason that Stanford is where they are and we are where we are,” Gottlieb said. “They’re a little bit better at the little things. … When it’s crunch time they know how to get it done and we don’t yet, but we will get there.”