Leading up to arguably the most important game of the year on Saturday afternoon against long-time rival Stanford University, the California women's basketball team had the odds stacked against them. Although the Golden Bears were experiencing their best year since the 1992-93 season with an overall record of 12-4 and a league mark of 4-2, they received a severe blow when 6'3" center Devanei Hampton, the frontrunner for the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, was suspended for one game after taking part in a fight at a local high school Tuesday night. With head coach Joanne Boyle on the East Coast tending to a family emergency, the duties on the bench shifted to assistant Lindsay Gottlieb, and an upset at Maples Pavilion seemed even more unlikely.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the 60th meeting between the two Bay Area schools, Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer knew better than to look past the Golden Bears, and her instinct proved to be spot on. After establishing a seemingly comfortable 18-point lead early in the second half, Stanford nearly let the game slip away. Cal was able to close the gap to just six points with a little over five minutes left. Although the 14th-ranked Cardinal eventually pulled out the 87-75 victory, the Bears' gritty performance left VanDerveer thoroughly impressed, especially with the play of a trio freshmen: forward Ashley Walker and guards Alexis Gray-Lawson and Jené Morris. In such an important game, the three proved that they were big-time players and were not going to back down to anyone, let alone their hated rival Stanford. They accounted for 61 points and 19 rebounds, with Gray-Lawson scoring a career-high 30 points in the losing effort.
"They played real hard and they were aggressive. They were not intimidated. This was just like a bus ride to them," says VanDerveer, whose squad improves to 11-4 on the year and is in sole possession of first place in the Pac-10 with a 6-1 mark.
Matching the efforts of Cal's fabulous freshmen were Stanford veterans center Brooke Smith and guards Krista Rappahahn and Candice Wiggins. Without Hampton in the paint, Smith was able to torch the smaller Golden Bears for 22 points on 11-of-16 shooting, while Rappahahn was her partner in crime on the perimeter, tying her career high in points with 18, all on three-pointers. Wiggins continued her magnificent play as of late and tallied her third 30-plus game in four outings, this time garnering 33 points, in addition to a personal-best eight assists and six steals, to lead her squad to victory. The reigning Pac-10 Player of the Year initially struggled with her shot, missing her first four attempts from all areas of the court, but eventually found her rhythm that allowed her to coast to 16 first-half points. With Cal doubling down on Smith for the majority of the game, the perimeter was left wide open for Wiggins and Rappahahn to shoot away. The duo fired without hesitation and canned 13-of-28 from beyond the three-point line.
"Well they were just focusing on the inside and played zone, so it was really easy to get a bunch of looks. If you are open, you've got to shoot it," comments Wiggins on her career-high seven three-point field goals.
"What I tell Krista is to keep shooting or she's coming out," VanDerveer explains. "I don't know of anyone who I've had more confidence in knocking down a shot when open. That's what I tell her."
Saturday's Pac-10 match-up with Cal not only showcased Stanford's ability to consistently hit the long ball after the graduation of three-point sharpshooters Kelley Suminski, Sebnem Kimyacioglu, and Susan Borchardt, but it also marked the highly-anticipated return of 6'5" post Kristen Newlin. Tossing in 12.3 points and a team-leading 10.3 rebounds per game, the Stanford forward/center missed the previous eight games after sustaining a stress reaction in her left femur in early December. While there was talk that Newlin would see some floor time, it was an unexpected surprise to hear her name being called out among the starting line-up. Against the Bears, her presence in the paint was welcomed by Cardinal fans, as her aggressiveness on the boards led to five offensive rebounds. Though her 1-of-4 shooting from the field proved that her offense has some catching up to do, Newlin will undoubtedly take some pressure off of Smith down low.
"In some ways, it is easier to start the game rather than come in. So I thought it would be easier for [Newlin]. I told her I was only going to play her for a few minutes, just to get the feel of it a bit," VanDerveer explains regarding her decision to start her leading rebounder.
The game kicked off in a rather ugly fashion, as six fouls were committed in the opening two-and-a-half minutes. While neither team was able to establish much of an offensive flow, Cal took an early 7-2 lead after two back-to-back Walker buckets. Her aggressive inside play certainly sent a message to the home crowd at Maples Pavilion that Cal was not the cellar dwellers of the Pac-10 that it had been for much of the last 20-plus years. The Stanford deficit increased to eight points after Gray-Lawson nailed one of her three treys of the game, pushing the score to 12-4.
Smith immediately led the Cardinal comeback with an 11-3 run, as she scored twice on the low block, with a lay-up by Rosalyn Gold-Onwude sandwiched in between. Wiggins capped off the string of points with a burst of energy around the 12-minute mark, as she hit a three-pointer and followed that up with a steal off the inbounds play for an easy lay-in, tying the game at 15-15.
Though Cal would extend its lead back to seven points, Stanford would ultimately battle hard and take control of the game thanks to the great inside presence of Smith and the accurate outside strokes of Rappahahn and Wiggins. The Cardinal headed into the locker room with a 41-32 advantage.
The second half began with a blitz of Cardinal points, as Rappahahn and Wiggins had two three-pointers apiece on the way to a 56-38 edge with 16:25 remaining, the largest lead of the game. Coming into the game, Cal had decided to pack the paint to limit Smith's touches, almost daring the outside shot to be taken. For the first 24 minutes of the contest, the gamble did not pay off, as Rappahahn and Wiggins hit a majority of their outside shots. However, the pair then proceeded to miss the next seven three-point attempts. With Stanford living and dying from the perimeter, Cal was able to capitalize on the cold shooting to significantly close the gap to six points after Walker's basket made it 70-64 at the 5:32 mark.
From that point forward, Stanford found its shooting touch once again, with Gold-Onwude, Rappahahn and Wiggins each popping a trey to put the game away. Wiggins also stepped up her game and proved her worth as the top player in the conference in the final five minutes. To go along with her clutch three-pointer, she contributed four points, two steals, and two assists in the waning moments to ensure her team's 12th straight win over the Gold and Blue.
The effort that the Golden Bears put forth Saturday afternoon could be the beginning of a rivalry worthy of the Cal-Stanford legacy. Whatever the case may be, their improving performance on the court will not only increase the status of women's basketball in the Bay Area, but also make it easier for Stanford during the remainder of the Pac-10 schedule this season and beyond.
"They are much more competitive than they are in the past and I think the rivalry will be good. We had a good crowd here and if the games are good, that's definitely going to help that," observes Smith, a North Bay native.
Adds VanDerveer: "I like the fact that people can't focus on us. When Arizona State or Arizona comes, they better look at the Cal scouting report. They'll look at this tape for them as much as for us."
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