As close as the final score was, so was the game. It featured 5 ties and 10 lead changes, and yet, at no point did it seem likely that Cal was going to pull this one out.
In six of their seven losses, the Bears have been within two points in the final three minutes of the game, today included. Five times they have come from 10 or more points behind to take a lead in the game, but they've only won two of those five, and the last three (Utah, Oregon and now Stanford) have been losses.
"Every time we had the lead," Cal coach Ben Braun said, "every time the game was in a good position for us, they came back and went inside and got an easy touch or a foul call. That was frustrating - if we don't let it get in so deep, we have a (better) chance."
The game turned on rebounding. The final margin, 42-35 in Stanford's favor, really doesn't tell the story.
Stanford missed 31 shots, and 13 more free throws that also became live balls. The Cardinal rebounded nearly half of them: 21 of 44. 21 offensive rebounds is an extraordinarily high number, and Robin Lopez was the man doing all that dirty work - he finished with 36 minutes, nine points and 14 rebounds, 10 on the offensive glass.
"Second chance points really hurt us," said Braun. "21 offensive boards for them - that's 21 opportunities that we didn't get. Most turned into fouls, and then the action stops."
In fact, what might have been most frustrating of all was a seven-minute stretch in the second half when Stanford rebounded every free throw they missed, starting with a pair of missed free throws by Robin Lopez, the MVP of the second half, that were turned into a three-point basked by Drew Shiller that put Stanford up 48-46 and extinguished Cal's last lead of the game.
The Lopez twins were solid and dominant in different ways through the game. Brook played very little in the first half, just five minutes in which he collected two fouls, one missed shot, and nothing else.
"Sitting in the first half," Brook said, "I really got a chance to watch the game."
Every lesson he learned he used in the second half he dominated the low block on the right side, shooting 7-of-10 from in close, and adding nine free throws for a 23-point half, enough to lead both teams in scoring.
Asked what the plan was at halftime, when Stanford clung to a 31-30 advantage, Cardinal head coach Trent Johnson laughed.
"Plan? Use the big boy on the right block. I thought he did a good job of understanding angles, we made some adjustments to make him the primary receiver, and he did a good job on the post. "
Lopez also succeeded in putting several of Cal's post players into foul trouble - Harper Kamp fouled out with more than 10 minutes left in the game (with the score tied at 48 apiece), and DeVon Hardin played with four fouls from the 13:04 mark on, eventually fouling out.
Anderson to the hoop
"They (the Lopez twins) are both very skilled big guys," Hardin said. "It's tough getting shots up over them. They are shot blockers. It's quite a challenge down in the paint.
Brook's gonna finish if he gets anywhere near the rim, so you try to keep him off the block as much as possible."
With Cal leading 14-13 and 13 minutes remaining in the first half, Stanford switched to a zone defense and provoked two turnovers in just seconds. Braun had to call a timeout with 8:32 remaining to stanch an 11-0 run by the Cardinal that put them up 24-14.
Whatever Braun said in the huddle seemed to work, as the Bears went on a 9-0 run of their own and kept the score close the remainder of the half. Jamal Boykin's basket with 11 seconds left produced the halftime score of 31-30, but it was also the first bench points in the game for Cal.
After the intermission, it was clear that Brook Lopez' pattern of having one great half was going to continue - he scored seven of Stanford's first eight points in three-and-a-half minutes. He also picked up his third personal foul, but was never whistled again.
Stanford (now 16-3) has held their opponent's leading scorer below his season's average in 18 of the 19 games they have played, including Saturday. Ryan Anderson worked hard for the 11 points he got, and he played a solid game with 8 rebounds, a steal, a block, and three assists, but was still not really an offensive factor and missed the two three-point shots he took. He had Robin Lopez inside his jersey much of the evening.
"Robin guarded what may be the best player in the country (Anderson) and didn't get in foul trouble," gushed Trent Johnson.
Braun protests foul call
Braun had coached Anderson to try to draw fouls on the Cardinal twin-trees, but the calls weren't going his way. "Seven foot, agile, you have to go around a guy like that, you can't go over him," Braun said. "When I talked to the referees, they said (about Ryan) "he needs to go straight up and not lean in to initiate contact" - I understand that."
Still, there were a number of calls made that were in the "didn't have to be called" category. Said Braun, "DeVon got called for a screen where he didn't touch anybody. Fouls setting screens, and touch fouls -- if we had it to do over again, we'd earn those fouls."
Patrick Christopher said it best when he analyzed the game in just a few sentences. "We can score with anybody in the country, I don't worry about that, but what we do at the other end is how we win or lose - boxing out, rebounding. This game was about rebounding. Miss a free throw and get the rebound and continue the cycle. That hurt us a lot."
The Lopez twins were active, but they had help, none from a more unlikely source than guard Mitch Johnson who poured through a career-high 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting and 5-of-6 from the line, adding five rebounds for good measure. In fact, he was the leading glass-cleaner at Cal's end of the floor - better than both of the twins.
Still, Cal had a shot at this game. A steal by Anderson and a Hardin flush at the other end put the score at 72-70 Stanford with 2:48 to play, and it was anybody's game. Except, it just wasn't, as Cal missed layups, finger rolls, and close-in jumpers down the stretch, while Stanford made 8-of-12 free throws.
It doesn't get any easier. Cal has now lost three straight at home, and travels next week to probably the toughest road venue in the Pac-10 at Pullman, Washington.
"This league is a challenge every week," said Braun. "We have to take a step at a time. We asked our team to not give up transition points, and we've done that. We are getting our shots. Our next challenge is to get offensive rebounds - if you give up offensive rebounds to Washington State, you are going to be on defense for 40 minutes."
It's finishing the game that is hurting the Bears right now. They could easily be 5-2 or even 6-1 if they had produced strong finishes. Braun realizes that: "We're knocking on the door every game. We're pretty darned close, and I don't want our team to lose sight of that. They don't want to be close; they want to get over the hump. We just are not finishing."
Trent Johnson might have said it best of all. "I don't know how you guys feel, but if that's the ninth-place team in this league, then there are going to be nine teams going to the NCAA tournament." That probably won't happen, but still, encouraging.
For Ben Braun's postgame comments, click here.
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