Saturday's 69-59 victory over California represented forward progress. Now, Stanford must finally discover what's been so elusive in conference play over the last half decade: consistency. A Rocky Mountain road trip will be complemented by a home date with red-hot Oregon, setting up a three-game stretch that's either ripe with opportunity or conducive to more frustration -- depending on one's point of view.
But round one of back-up-against-the-wall basketball went Stanford's way.
With archrival California bearing down their throats and a disastrous 1-4 start in Pac-12 play looming, the Farm Boys toughened up, dug in, and reinvigorated hope into a topsy-turvy season. Chasson Randle intercepted a telegraphed Golden Bears' pass with 12 minutes remaining to preserve his team's tenuous one point lead. He scored on the other end, igniting a two-possession strike of lightning capped by a John Gage bomb that put the Cardinal in 48-42 control.
From that point on, with the luxury of a little breathing room, defense took over.
And there it was, a fairly simple formula to victory that propelled Stanford past a talented -- yet paper thin -- Cal team. No offensive trickery or excessive mixing and matching was needed: Gage, Randle, and Dwight Powell aggressively attacked the basket with their various styles, and they accounted for exactly two-thirds (46) of their team's 69 points. A simple eight-man rotation was more than enough to complete the job. The Cardinal defense held Golden Bears' 20-point regular Allen Crabbe to only six in the first half, while a gritty Josh Huestis effort on the glass (six offensive rebounds) ultimately sealed the win on a backbreaking board late.
The final result left Golden Bears coach Mike Montgomery steamed.
"I don't think Stanford is particularly physical," he bemoaned. "But it's obvious we're not physical either... We had a couple of rebounds and Huestis just took the ball away from us."
For the Cardinal, that loose ball aggressiveness carried over to other areas of the floor. Freshman Rosco Allen (6 points, 7 rebounds) provided his own healthy attacking spark, while Andy Brown's energetic work on the defensive end was essential in keeping the Bears under 35 percent from the floor.
But it was the combative demeanor of Stanford's big-time scorers that was the difference. Chasson Randle set the tone, pushing the issue for the Cardinal's first seven points. Once Cal keyed on him, Gage exploded, draining all four of his treys. Dwight Powell provided the centerpiece glue that's often been missing from the Stanford offense, dropping in a game-high 17 points.
"Dwight's embraced the role of our go-to guy," Dawkins said.
That's imperative for Stanford, a team that's now heading on the road to Colorado altitude in its season-defining stretch. The Cardinal have long needed a consistent identity offensively, and Powell is the player best physically equipped to support it.
His supporting cast wasn't bad, either: the Farm Boys' bench outscored Cal's 26-3. But this win began when Stanford's prominent names took matters into their own hands offensively and defensively: the big boys seized the lead, while Randle's critical steal fended the Bears off down the stretch before Huestis' glass work slammed the door.
So now, it's back to the point of biggest trouble for Dawkins' squad. Repeating Saturday's type of effort against deeper competition has proven troublesome for Stanford recently. It's time to find out if the 2013 story will be different, or if the treadmill is just picking up steam.
David Lombardi is the Stanford Football Insider for The Bootleg and FOX Sports Next. Check him out at www.davidlombardisports.com. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidMLombardi.
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