Card Steal One in Berkeley

Battle of the Bay II went to the Cardinal 60-58. Hot three-point shooting by JJ Hones and Kayla Pedersen kept the Card in it during the first half. Jayne Appel took over after intermission and Candice Wiggins overcame a terrible shooting day to come up with a key steal and bucket that put the Card in front for good.

The second "Battle of the Bay" was as different from the first "Battle" as red is from blue. This time around, the hype was not misplaced. Hype is easy to misplace, often being flung around where it doesn't belong, so meeting the expectations engendered by the hype was a good trick. "Battle of the Bay II" was truly worthy of the epithet. If you like leisurely Cardinal dominance, "Battle I" was your cup of tea. If you prefer intensity, emotion, and lots of tough, physical play in a seesaw game, "Battle II" was the rare sequel better than the original. The California Golden Bears were barely present in the first meeting at Maples Pavilion a month ago and lost meekly by 20 points. Playing at home with the Pac-10 title on the line, the Bears played as if their lives depended on it. As Cal's fine forward Ashley Walker said after the game, "It's March basketball at the end of February."

If so, the Cardinal should be ready to roar like lions when they really reach March. This slugfest of a game this was far from their best, but they overcame foul trouble, weaker than usual rebounding, a horrible shooting day from Candice Wiggins, and the almost desperate emotion of their opponents to prevail 60-58 before a boisterous crowd of over 10,000. The victory moved Stanford into a tie atop the Pac-10 standings and in line for the top seed in the Pac-10 tournament in two weeks, since they claim the head-to-head tiebreaker against Cal. Beautiful basketball it was not, but intense and riveting it certainly was. "It was gritty. It wasn't a pretty game," said Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer. "The game was all it was billed to be. To me it was like a heavyweight fight. Sometimes it wasn't really pretty but it was very competitively played."

Added VanDerveer, "Our team worked hard. Cal worked hard. In the first half we weren't able to get our doubles going to disrupt their inside game as much as we wanted to, but we hit some nice perimeter shots, with JJ (Hones), Ros (Gold-Onwude), and Candice (Wiggins) knocking down shots. At halftime, Jayne (Appel) came out of hibernation and went to work. She really took over the game for us. I'm really proud of how well she played. She got an earful at halftime, took it in, and stepped up. I thought that was the whole difference in the second half. We're excited to win. It would have helped my stomach a little bit if we could have made a couple of free throws at the end. Cal is an excellent team."

The play at the start of the game seemed to indicate that another Card blowout was in the works. Stanford opened well with a bunch of three point shots and took a quick early lead. Cal caught up on the strength of their inside game, as center Devanei Hampton scored 14 of her 19 points in the first half. The Cardinal inside game, which had dominated the first "Battle," was missing in action early. Center Jayne Appel rarely touched the ball, and was only 1-2 from the floor. She had as many fouls as shot attempts. Forward Kayla Pedersen had no luck with her shorter jump shots, but she was smoking from beyond the arc with 2 triples in the half. Pedersen finished the game with 10 points and 10 rebounds. After the initial burst of scoring, the Cardinal suffered through almost 10 minutes where they managed only 1 point. They were hurt by foul trouble for Appel and point guard JJ Hones, and continued shooting woes for Candice Wiggins. After knocking home two quick threes, Wiggins went "Ice" cold for almost the entirety of the game. She totaled 13 points on ghastly 4-19 shooting. Somehow Cal never got very much ahead even with Stanford struggling. The biggest Bear lead was 6 points. Stanford could not find much offense inside the arc, but beyond it they were 7-16 in the first half, and that allowed them to run into the tunnel tied at 32 all.

In the second half, Appel must have realized that "hibernation," as her coach called it, was only for bears. Appel elevated her play, not only scoring, but also finally drawing fouls on Bear defenders. Appel's line was 5-8 from the field, 6-7 from the charity stripe, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks. Stanford gradually built a lead that fluctuated between 4 and 7 points for much of the half, but things were not going very smoothly for the visitors. Candice Wiggins, who was still struggling mightily on offense, picked up her third and fourth fouls in rapid succession with 11 minutes to go and had to leave the game. JJ Hones took charge with two three-point shots and lots of motioning to position her teammates correctly. Although they maintained the lead for a while, Stanford could not extend the margin, and Cal crept within 1 just as Wiggins returned with a little over 5 minutes to go. The equation got even more difficult to solve for the Card when Appel was nicked for her fourth foul with almost 5 minutes to play. Cal took their first lead in 10 minutes on a free throw by Alexis Gray-Lawson and extended the lead to 3 on a Gray-Lawson lay-up. Appel then made a key basket plus the free throw when she drew the foul on Devanei Hampton.

Finally, with the score knotted at 56, the Card, or more specifically Candice Wiggins, stole the game right out of the grasp of the Bears. In a play Cal coach Joanne Boyle simply and painfully termed "huge," Wiggins snuck behind an inattentive Hampton, who had the ball up over her head, and smacked the ball away for the last of her 5 steals. Wiggins raced for an uncontested lay-up that put the Cardinal ahead to stay. She also added a long jump shot to make the lead 4, and while Cal cut the lead to 2 and the Card caused heart palpitations in anyone wearing red when they missed 3 straight one-and-one opportunities at the line, the Bears were unable to score again. Appel and Pedersen stepped up on defense, and each had a key block in the last 30 seconds. Game, set, and sweep to the Cardinal.

Wiggins described her mindset during one of the more frustrating games of her career and explained how her game-changing steal came to pass. "I was just trying to stay within the flow of the game and really attack. That's my game, off the penetration and my three-point shot. They changed to a box-and-one type defense in the first half. We worked on that. It wasn't a surprise or anything. When my shot wasn't really going, I had to look for other ways to contribute to the team. I was working on defense and helping in the post, just trying to get steals, things like that. I have so much confidence in my teammates. They showed that even if I'm struggling, they were all there to pick me up. When I got fouls, got into foul trouble and was getting frustrated, my teammates were there to pick me up. Obviously I was struggling and it was bad, it was frustrating. This team, we stay together and when someone is down, the other 4 or other 10 people are picking up that person. It was the key to our team's win today."

"I don't think I was supposed to be helping or anything like that. I just saw that [Hampton] kind of wasn't seeing me, and she had the ball up over her head. I just went for it, tried to smack it out," explained Wiggins about her timely steal. Smack it out she did, not just the ball, but also the game for Stanford. Wiggins didn't have a very good day, but she, like her teammates, made the big plays and did not get unduly perturbed when confronted with difficulties. They won a huge game without playing close to their best. The Card did play extremely hard and clamped down defensively when it counted, so in that sense they played well. Any win against a top opponent on their home court is a great win, but this "Battle" was just that for the Card, both mentally and physically. The Bears collected 10 more rebounds than did the Card, who gave up way too many offensive rebounds (20 for the Bears). Stanford surely missed injured forward Jillian Harmon in the rebounding department. The Card dealt with serious foul trouble for Wiggins and Appel. Kayla Pedersen contributed some big shots, but was only 3-12 from the field. It was also notable that with Harmon out and Wiggins on the bench, the Card were working with an all freshman and sophomore lineup for a long stretch. The more experienced team did not win this game.

If someone told Cal head coach Joanne Boyle that Ashley Walker would score 17 points, Devanei Hampton would score 19, the Bears would win the rebounding battle by 10, Wiggins would go 4-19, and the Card would encounter foul trouble, no doubt she would have felt very good about her team's chances. Cal even took relatively good care of the ball, coughing up only 14 turnovers, which was well below their average. The Cardinal won despite all that because they competed hard, they shot their threes very well, Appel awoke, and Wiggins produced some star wattage with the game hanging in the balance. Smart subbing and good management of the foul issues were other big reasons the Card prevailed. Wiggins and Appel played maximum minutes given foul constraints, and were there at the end to win the game. JJ Hones was also allowed to play on when she got 2 fouls in the first half. The coaches trusted the players to play smart with their fouls, which the players did.

Stanford's outside shooting, which had been a problem early in the year but has become a strength in recent games, was crucial. The Card hit 9-21 three-point shots. They shot better outside the arc than within it. For the game, they connected on only 34% of their total shots. They shot approximately 42% from three-point range. Rudimentary math puts them at about 30% from within the arc. Threes did not kill the Cardinal; they saved them. JJ Hones, who shot 4-6 from beyond the arc and scored 16 points along with 4 assists, has developed into a major scoring threat and key component to the Cardinal offense. Hones now has 33 three-pointers for the season and is hitting them at over 40%. Rosalyn Gold-Onwude has been somewhat streaky, but she is also a legitimate threat from outside. The book on defending the Cardinal might need revision. Now the plan can't be to sag inside and guard Wiggins closely without regard to the other perimeter players. Well, it can be, but the Cardinal ought to be very happy to see Hones allowed to fire away.

The guard duties have settled into more defined roles as the season winds down. Hones is the primary point guard who runs the offense and directs traffic, and is the key three-point bomber. Gold-Onwude plays the point and the shooter's role also, but seems to be doing very well playing off-guard more, and most critically, acting as a primary perimeter defensive stopper. Said VanDerveer about her guards, "JJ shot the ball really well and ran the offense really well. She hit a big three when Candice was out. She's calm out there. And Ros did a great job defensively. I'm not sure what Alexis Gray-Lawson ended up with (7 points on 2-10 shooting), but Ros worked really hard defensively on her and accepted that challenge to guard Alexis Gray-Lawson."

This was a big game for the Cardinal, who badly wanted to keep their streak of Pac-10 titles going, but for Cal it was beyond just a big game or a title. The Bears have had a superlative season and hope for big things in the NCAA tournament, yet they lack the big wins over elite teams that signal a program has truly arrived. Cal is 0-4 against teams ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Stanford is 6-1 vs. those 25 teams and 5-1 against teams ranked in the top 10. Cal has won all the games against lesser teams that they "should" have won. They needed this one to show they could beat a top opponent. Even with the good fortune of an abnormal anti-matter version of Wiggins for almost the whole game, major Cardinal foul trouble, only half a game from Appel (though it was a great half), and the wave of power from the fabulous home crowd, the Bears could not make it happen. The importance of this game to the Bears was very apparent from the pain that the loss caused them. Tears were still flowing long after the game had ended, and head coach Joanne Boyle was clearly emotional about her team coming up just short. "It was really disappointing, but I thought it was just a hard fought game in the atmosphere out there and how hard both teams were playing," said Boyle. "It just hurts and it's sad that one team had to come up short. That was an unbelievable effort by both teams. We have to hang our heads high. We fought hard. We've done a lot of things to put ourselves in this position. We came up short, but this program is young, and it's going places. It's going to continue to go places. It hurts right now. I told the team it's supposed to hurt. We've got to let this go. We have to finish the season out like we know we can finish it out."

Should any regular-season loss hurt quite so much? The tone of Boyle's words sounded closer to a speech given upon losing a tournament game. Even Stanford partisans have to applaud the heart the Cal players displayed, but the Bears paid a heavy price emotionally, and the season is now heading into the stretch run. Two wins to end the Pac-10 season up in Washington would earn the Cardinal their 691st Pac-10 title (or something like that). We won't consider the alternative, which is unthinkable given the long struggle to catch the Bears. Cal would share the regular-season title with two wins. They deserve their share, but they can't feel entirely good about it. They had two shots to win it for themselves and went 0-2. The best team in the west still wears cardinal, and nothing that will happen from here until the end of the Pac-10 tournament can change that.

The two teams may meet again in the Pac-10 tournament finals. If they do, once again the game will probably be a much bigger deal for the Bears. The talk of "Battles" and proving things will begin again. Perhaps it would be easier to try to catch the Card napping than to poke them with a stick, which is what all the hype is doing. Battle cries only awaken the beast. The usually bitter Stanford/Cal rivalry has been extremely friendly on the women's basketball side. Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, her staff, and players have been openly supportive of Cal and happy to see Bay Area women's basketball thrive. May it continue to be so, and may the crowds continue be drawn to both gyms by the promise of more exciting "Battles." It is great fun for everyone and can only help both programs prepare for the NCAA tournament.

But make no mistake, Stanford fans; the Bears are gunning for your team and would be happy to see them fall. If you watched VanDerveer's intensity on the sidelines in Berkeley, you would have seen that the Cardinal are not all about basketball kindness and let's all hope our rival gets ever so much better so that they can beat us more often. Boyle has said the Bears want to take what the Cardinal have. They want the Pac-10 titles. They want the better NCAA seedings. They want to be on top. There is plenty of room for great basketball in the Pac-10 and in the Bay Area, but that doesn't mean the Card welcome mat has to be quite so accommodating. We've been generous in our rooting. Will there be a time to get mean and get off the love train? If so, that time may be coming soon. Maybe we can all do the peace, love, and understanding routine for a while more and enjoy this odd semi-camaraderie between rivals, the synergy of everyone wanting more meaningful games, bigger crowds, and more press. But don't be fooled. Those Bear tears would translate to a lot of Bear joy at Cardinal expense if Cal had won. We can't have that, now can we? We see you there, you Bears, and we feel for you and your fight to build a great program. We do. But the Cardinal are not budging. If you think that "Battle" was tough, just wait. The standings may be tied, but 2-0 says the Cardinal rule, and they'll be ready for round 3. Count on it.


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