Wrong Zone

Cal's Alexis Gray-Lawson scored 37 points as the Card could not hold a second-half lead in Berkeley and fell 57-54 to the Golden Bears.

Stanford debuted a cute new video entitled "Get in the Zone!" recently, but we fear it did not reach the intended audience - they did not mean you, Alexis Gray-Lawson. The Card's To-Do List on Sunday afternoon against the California Golden Bears in Berkeley was almost complete. Sure they did not shoot all that well (36.7% for the game and 5-20 from three-point range) but they made more shots than Cal (22 to 19), yanked down more rebounds (37 to 31), had more assists (14 to 8) and lost fewer turnovers (10 to 12). The Card held the Pac-10 conference's leading scorer, Cal F Ashley Walker, to 2-4 shooting and 5 points. In fact no Cal player but one scored over 6 points. Unfortunately for the Card, that one Cal player was all it took to send them home frowning and shaking their heads. Cal RS junior G Alexis Gray-Lawson had a career game to will her team to a hard-fought 57-54 victory in front of over 10,000 delirious fans. Gray-Lawson, who ended up with 37 points, seemed to specialize in long step-back threes and funky fades, more often than not with a defender's hand in her face. It was an amazing performance, more so because by the end of the game, Gray-Lawson was Cal's only offensive option - the entire focus was to find her a sliver of space, which on this day was all it took. But although the Card could not contain Gray-Lawson, her performance wasn't really the reason Stanford did not win. What Stanford did not do well enough was score, not defend.

After getting down in the first half by 8 while looking disorganized on offense and leaving too many open shooters alone on defense, the Cardinal fought back well enough to hit the half down by 3 (29-26), a result that was not totally displeasing since junior C Jayne Appel had scored only 3 points and sat out much of the half with 2 fouls.

After the break Stanford finally got their inside-out game going. They gradually and seemingly inexorably ground ahead. The offense was running through Appel (18 points, 8 boards and 4 assists) and for the first portion of the second half, it clicked moderately if not stunningly well. Since being down by 8 in the first half Stanford outscored the Bears 32-16 to take what appeared to be a comfortable and growing lead. Only Gray-Lawson was getting anything done for the Bears. Despite Gray-Lawson's continued heroics, Stanford led by 8 (50-52) with 7:29 left and looked ready to keep pushing toward a win. Unfortunately for the Card, that's when things slowly started to fall apart. A series of poor possessions by Stanford halted their momentum and when Gray-Lawson hit two huge, contested threes to bring her team to within 4 points, the mojo was all on the Bears' side. Cal cranked up the defense and the Card offense went away completely. Stanford scored just 4 points in the last 7 minutes of the game.

The Cardinal only had 10 turnovers but several of those came in that last 7 minutes when they struggled to run the offense. Credit Cal for their defense and for applying the type of pressure that once again this season perplexed Stanford. Even when the Card did not turn it over, they faced shot clock constraints that disrupted the offense. Cal's press was not at all the crazy-long and athletic beast thrown at them by teams like Duke and Tennessee, but it caused trouble because the Cardinal hesitated instead of taking quick decisive action with the ball. At this stage of the season it has to be disappointing for the team that a press still creates such issues. The Golden Bears won the game with their end of the game defense and a superhuman effort by Gray-Lawson.

"I just want to compliment Cal on a great game. I thought Alexis Gray-Lawson was phenomenal. Unfortunately I've seen this before and know that she's capable of that," said Stanford Head Coach Tara VanDerveer. "She just really got in a zone and knocked down big shots. I thought people were working really hard to be right on her but she's capable of that kind of day. Congratulations to her and how hard she played and how hard their team played."

Continued VanDerveer, "As far as our team goes, we had opportunities. Down the stretch I thought we had too many mistakes, turned the ball over, had some opportunities maybe we didn't capitalize on. Early in the game we didn't get the ball inside to Jayne as much as we should have."

"I think that once we got the lead we needed to put the hammer down and just roll away with it," added Stanford sophomore F Kayla Pedersen, who had 14 points and 8 rebounds.

Said Cal Head Coach Joanne Boyle about star of the show, Gray-Lawson, "She had a great game. They knew that we've been running on Ashley (Walker) all year for a lot, Lexi at times as well. And it's not just one game. I tell her all the time that we need that day in and day out. She delivered tonight. They took our bigs out and she stepped up and had the game we needed her to have."

Gray-Lawson had the game she had to have and there has been some suggestion that this was also the game that the Bay Area had to have for these "Battles of the Bay" to matter. We could go along with that idea, since a one-sided rivalry is not much fun, but is what is good for the Bay Area totally wonderful for the Cardinal? Playing in that rabid atmosphere against an excellent team is undoubtedly very, very good for the Card. Even losing may not be that bad for them because anything that shakes them up, jolts them into raising the stakes, has to be good. It is also fine and dandy that other Pac-10 teams visiting the Bay Area have to work hard against two teams now, not just one, although the bad old days as the only one in the crosshairs didn't hurt Stanford any. The increased media coverage of the rivalry games is also swell although having to share the somewhat limited media bandwidth with Cal throughout the season is not entirely great – call it a wash.

We do see some negatives to balance all this goodness. It is one thing when two or three teams from let's say the ACC are top ranked and fighting for the same slice of pie because there is a lot of pie back East: many good non-conference opponents nearby to schedule for big games, several good conference opponents that would count as high quality wins, lots of NCAA tournament sites, generally two or even three reasonably close NCAA Regional sites, etc. Pac-10 teams have none of those luxuries. They must travel far to meet top non-conference opponents, many of which are not thrilled to travel out west when they have plenty of great competition in their own backyards. Aside from the top two Pac-10 teams, there are no big wins available in the Pac-10 except perhaps Arizona State, which is a pretty good win but certainly not a great one. Dodging bad losses except for the two "Battles of the Bay" won't be much help to Stanford's NCAA dreams, or Cal's for that matter.

With two similarly ranked foes scratching and clawing for that sliver of pie, that one nearby Regional for instance, the difference in circumstance for #1 vs. #2 can be significant. Maybe it was ever thus, but it was nice to be the one getting the goodies as the #1. The penalty for not being the top western team is more severe than for the slew of competitive eastern teams. There may be more competition in the east but there are more rewards to compensate. Often there is no true western regional. Three eastern seaboard sites and one in the mid-west or the southwest is not uncommon. There is just very little NCAA pie out west. Stanford has had the pleasure of being the top western team for a while now. The "Battle of the Bay" is great, but without a stronger Pac-10, the battlers may end up smashing the loser into less than desirable NCAA slots. Greensboro, anyone? The Pac-10 needs more capable teams so that the NCAA ships them out a nice creamy lemon meringue or tasty apple pie more often. Overall the emergence of Cal is a positive for Stanford, but not being the sole big dog on the weakling left coast has its disadvantages. Of course, despite the loss on Sunday, the Card are far from ceding their spot at the top.

This is an interesting moment for Cal. There was even brief mention of this game as a possible program-defining moment. For their sake, we hope not because this win doesn't convey a whole lot of definition yet. The Bears can celebrate a big win and rightfully so, and for that reason we hate to discuss the horrible secret that all teams who win big games find out really quickly – the shelf life of a big win is amazingly short. The shelf life of a big win in January is probably milliseconds. The next game is all that matters. The past recedes like a tsunami roaring back out to sea from the land. Stanford knows this well. Big win against Tennessee at home? Oops, here they are again and nobody cares what happened last time. Even as big a year as last season mutated into deliberations on life without Wiggins (so far iffy) almost before the shouting was over. Yes, we are in a contemplative mood, less because the Card lost than because we've been pondering the longevity of great wins and great seasons for a while now and wondering at the transient nature of both. Amazing how quickly something becomes a distant memory, and somehow bad losses feel bad longer than great wins feel good. This wasn't a particularly bad loss for Stanford. They've had enough over the years to know your standard annoying loss (and aren't they all) from a truly wrenching one.

Congratulations to the Bears. They earned the win with inspired play and it was thrilling to watch Gray-Lawson work magic for the big crowd. But it is only January with such a long way to go. You have to win big again, and again, if you can. That is the tricky part. That is always the tricky part. Is there really any such thing as a program defining moment? Or is that moment always the next moment? A team continually defines itself. Think you've hit it and you are sunk. The treadmill never stops. In fact, it just keeps getting steeper as expectations change. "Battle of the Bay," round 2, at Maples Pavilion on February 14th should be quite the show.

For Don Anderson's photo gallery and slideshow from this game, click HERE.

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