Cardinal Take "Battle of the Bay" with Ease
What if they threw a "Battle" and the guest of honor didn't show? Cal was the participant whose ascendance was supposed to make this rivalry hum; instead the latest Big Game was yet another ho hum blowout by the Cardinal, not so different from most previous Big Games except for the hype that had preceded it and the number of eyes watching it. The crowd was there, the atmosphere was electric, but the Stanford Cardinal rolled to a surprisingly smooth and tension-free 72-52 victory over the California Golden Bears. What had been hyped for weeks as the "Battle of the Bay" was as sickening to the visitors as the sight of a lumbering tanker bonking into the Bay Bridge. The biggest battle was who could snare a prime parking spot, as a large crowd of 6175 watched the Cardinal render the Bears' normally exceptional posts almost irrelevant, while Card shooters had their best three-point shooting day of the season. There was a lot of build to this contest and several storylines to follow. Who would win the battle within the Battle, that of the bigs in the paint? Could the Cardinal shoot well enough from outside? How would Stanford star guard Candice Wiggins respond after a week of reading how her stats may not be up to snuff this season? What of Stanford sophomore point guard JJ Hones, who tore her ACL in the first seconds of the Cal/Stanford game at Maples Pavilion last season? And perhaps most fascinating of all, what would the psychology be? How would the teams adjust to their new roles (for the Pac-10 anyway), with Stanford the pursuer and Cal the pursued? Starting inside, because that is where both these teams start their offenses, we find that the mini-battle in the paint (or not so mini given the size and excellence inside for both squads), was no contest. Cardinal posts Jayne Appel (4-7 for 9 points and 15 rebounds) and Kayla Pedersen (4-7 for 11 points and 7 rebounds), clearly outplayed their Bear counterparts, combining for 20 points and 22 rebounds along with some stifling defense. Cal junior forward Ashley Walker, who often sets the dial to spin cycle on her powerful moves to the basket, was held to 10 points and 4 rebounds. Junior center Devanei Hampton, the 2007 Pac-10 Player of the Year, had only 3 points and 5 rebounds. Thirteen points and 9 rebounds is not a great day for one of those all-conference posts, let alone both combined, and certainly won't get the job done against a top-level opponent. Said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer of the defense that stymied the Bears inside, "We try to attack teams' best players. [Cal] has great personnel. It's not just Devanei. Ashley Walker. I love Alexis Gray-Lawson's game. I think she's terrific. We try to limit things, make them do things they don't like to do, make them play outside their comfort zone a little bit. The key for us was that our team was the aggressor. We weren't going to let a team come in here and just kind of jump on us. I'm really proud of how Kayla, Jayne and Morgan (Clyburn), our post players, battled in there. They said Devanei, we're not backing down from you. We're here. We're going to play hard. We are going to help in. Candice (Wiggins) helped in. JJ (Hones) helped in. We're going to make you find the open player and have that player make the shot." The Cardinal doubled and helped to great effect. Neither Hampton nor Walker could get their points, and the Cal guards did not pick up enough of the slack. Sophomore Alexis Gray-Lawson was the most productive Bear guard, with 12 points (3-5 from three-point range), but she was scoreless in the first half when the Cardinal built a big lead. The battle in the paint was key to the larger battle, and it went to Stanford all the way. "Credit goes to Stanford. I thought they had a great game plan," said Cal head coach Joanne Boyle. "We worked on their sagging man. We knew they were going to play us in a sagging man or zone. I don't think we moved the ball very well. We were staring our posts down and they weren't open. By the time we decided we were going to take shots, we questioned them, so we just needed to come out more confident." Other teams have tried similar schemes against the Bears, but few teams have the size and talent inside that Stanford does with Appel and Pedersen. Explained Boyle, "If you look at some other teams, they have a dominant post and a "4" player, so when you get mismatches you can really take advantage. But [the Cardinal] have a 6'4" and a 6'3". They have two legitimate top post players in the country, so we didn't get the mismatches. They're big off the double team. We didn't get any of those looks because they can legitimately just switch onto each other and there is no mismatch. Between those two (Appel and Pedersen) playing the way they did and their guard play, they are a top 5 team in the country." Sophomore center Appel had a fabulous day. She scored 9 points on 4-7 shooting, pulled down 15 rebounds, swatted aside 4 shots, and dished out 7 assists, most coming when she quickly recognized oncoming double-teams and got the ball out to shooters with some superb passing. The Card were able to run their offense through Appel without depending on her to score every time she got the ball. Tara VanDerveer was quick to praise Appel and her increased understanding of myriad ways she can help her team. "One of the things that has been great about Jayne's development this year is that, first of all, she listens and she's a very smart player. She recognizes what they're doing. She recognizes the double. I think it is a little bit of her water polo passing days. She has great peripheral vision and a great sense of the game. The only thing that gets her in trouble is if she dribbles. Basically since the LA trip, she really understands where to be on the floor and what kind of things to do. Again, she's a very intelligent player and she makes great decisions. She can pass, plus she's very unselfish. She's not about just being a scorer." Appel thought that she had been well prepared to make the passes that let Cardinal shooters find their rhythm. "All week in practice, we kind of knew the double team was coming. We practiced passing out and being aware of where their defense was. We also worked on doubling their posts. It was just a great battle of the bigs inside," said Appel. The guard play of the Cardinal was notable for unusually sizzling shooting. Stanford finished 9-20 from three-point range with the bulk of the makes coming off the fingertips of point guard JJ Hones, who was 4-6. Candice Wiggins was 2-5, Jeanette Pohlen was 2-6, and Kayla Pedersen was 1-1. As was previously noted, the Card got many of their open looks on passes out from Appel, who said, "It's all about realizing what they're giving up. In this game we knew that they were going to be pressed on Candice. Every team has been. A lot of teams have either been sagging or they've really pressured, so I can take credit for the assists, but it's the person who makes the shot that gives me that, so I credit our outside shooters." The increased ability of the Cardinal posts to find those shooters in the flow of the offense may pay big dividends, for it appears that the Card's sometimes shaky shooting benefits greatly from the rhythm they gain from those nifty Appel passes. Hones in particular looked more and more confident as the contest continued; she was 3-3 from beyond the three-point arc in the second half, firing away rapidly with beautiful form when the pass arrived. Not only is Appel finding shooters, the shooters are finding themselves through the sharper passing. The Card will not shoot 45% from beyond the three-point arc every game, but they have a decent chance of shooting well enough to make clogging the inside a losing proposition for opponents, or at least make them pause and think about guarding the perimeter a little tighter. The return of Hones to the "scene of the crime" was one more success story on a day of successes for Stanford. Hones played 35 minutes, scored 12 points, and had 3 assists to 1 turnover, which is one more turnover than she usually has. On the year, her assist to turnover ratio is an astounding 4:1, and lately it has been rising with a bullet. "JJ did really well," said Tara VanDerveer. "To me this was a really big game for JJ, given what happened last year. She's come full circle. It is her time to be out there. She has been playing very, very well off the bench for us. She takes care of the ball. She understands what we're doing. I knew we needed to start well. She's been practicing well. Her starting guard position was not handed to her. She's had to really work hard to get it, and she's earned it." It certainly sounds like Hones' move to the starting line-up will stick. Hones professes not to care too much either way. "I don't think starting or coming off the bench makes that big a difference. Tara talks about starting the game and starting it strong. She's the coach and whatever she decides, I agree with as well," Hones said. "But it was kind of nice being able to start this one because I didn't get to play last year-well, 45 seconds." Senior guard Candice Wiggins generally is not that concerned with statistics. We have learned from past games that stats are not how she prefers to measure success. Recently others have poked at her stats, found a few of them wanting, and decided that must mean her senior year is a "down" season, despite a great deal of eyeball evidence and late-game heroics to the contrary. If she did choose to dwell on stats, she might be pleased with her 28 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 4 assists, and no turnovers. Or she might particularly enjoy the 14-14 from the free throw line. "That's been a huge problem for our team this year, free throw shooting," noted Wiggins. "I think it is important that when I step to the line to have that mentality to hit the free throws, to give out team confidence that we can all step to the line. Hopefully this will continue." Of course, she shot only 6-15 from the field, so it must have been a sub-par day, right? And the Bears must have been satisfied with their defense on her, given that stat? Well not really. Joanne Boyle did not think her Golden Bears guarded Wiggins "the right way." Said Boyle, "[Wiggins] is smart. If you're playing her tight she's going to the basket. If you sag off, she's going to shoot the three. We found ourselves in no-man's-land sometimes with her, and put ourselves in position to just draw fouls. She does a great job of that. I felt we weren't really smart about taking things away from her." Wiggins is a bit like a "Whack-A-Mole" game–bop one part of her game and something else pops up. Are there stats for that? The "Battle of the Bay" was a lot of fun, even if the game itself did not live up to its moniker. Creating the atmosphere and pressure that helps forge championship teams all right here in the Bay Area is an unusual treat. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer was looking to learn more about her team from this pressure game. "[The Bears] are physical. They're talented. With their post game, obviously we were going to have to battle. We were going to see if we were tough. We were going to see if people could make shots under some pressure, which they did. We learned a lot about our team. We learned that our team is pretty battle tested and excited about playing. We showed very good poise," said VanDerveer. Candice Wiggins has gotten to play in front of two full or almost full houses at Maples Pavilion in her senior season, and loved the energy. "It elevates the atmosphere of the game. You're watching the Maryland/North Carolina game, and it is like that atmosphere. It is a huge rivalry. It was great to see," said Wiggins. "The biggest thing that we got from this is that the first half of the Pac-10 is over and we've got a lot of momentum going into the second half. Right now we're just trying to be the best team we can be and looking one game at a time." Ok then, what ultimately happened here in this highly anticipated battle? Did the Bears run into a superior team or was this more a case of Cal simply not playing well in a high-pressure game? And if the latter, what does that say about Cal? This was a huge game, and they either came up flat or could not compete. All the pre-game chatter was about how Cal had arrived to make this a true rivalry, never mind that it takes more than a season for that, no matter the current Pac-10 standings or the outcome of this particular "Battle," and never mind that Stanford sported a 3-1 record against top 10 opponents coming into the game while Cal was 0-2. All the talk about the new equality was fun, but it is not yet reality. Just as Stanford's great win over Tennessee does not suddenly transform what has been a one-sided series, neither does Cal's success thus far instantly create the equality or the rivalry touted before this game. One is never enough, not one game, one tournament, or one season. One can be big. One can start the process of rearranging the basketball world. One is not, however, enough. I may just be a tough sell, but I want to see a little more, like some NCAA wins, a few big non-conference victories, and more than one season of contention for the Pac-10 title (or even winning it) before I will buy into the "Battle" plan. It looks like Cal is on the verge, with the talent and coaching to keep them at the top of the conference and the national rankings for a while, which will make future battles quite something, but as the Bears discovered on Saturday, getting the best shot from a top team with something to prove, a situation the Cardinal are very used to seeing, is harder than it looks. If the Cardinal had not rested on their laurels, zoned out, or whatever you want to call their meltdown in Los Angeles, they would have been a clear favorite at home against Cal. The nice thing about Stanford's tough early schedule is that it has shown what they can do, which is beat some of the best teams in the country. The unpleasant side effect might have been the slips against UCLA and USC, when the Cardinal apparently lost focus after such an exhilarating non-conference season. The welcome counterpoint to the unpleasant side effect might well be the improvements that have been very evident since the trip to SoCal. We have a good handle on what the Card can do: their strengths, their weaknesses, their continued improvements, their potential and their potential problems. It is less clear where our neighbors across the Bay stand. The #8 team in the country should not lose by 20 to the #7 team, no matter where the game is played, and not this late in the season with so much riding on the outcome and so much positive attention flowing their way. The Bears have a chance at redemption in a month, and maybe things will be different in the Berkeley version of the "Battle of the Bay," but for now, Pac-10 lead for Cal and all, there is still no new sheriff in town. You have to do some big things to be the new gunslinger. There is a long way to go, but again, for now, meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
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