For five minutes to start the game, it was déjà vu. The Bears were playing solid defense. They were pulling down rebounds and drawing fouls. But they couldn't hit a shot. They missed their first nine field goal attempts and Stanford raced out to a 10-2 lead. The Bears got two great looks from behind the arc that all missed. The game felt destined to end the same way Tuesday night's game ended.
Cal outscored Stanford 65 to 45 the rest of the way.
Let that sink in for a second. Over 35 minutes of basketball, the Bears outscored Stanford by 20 points. That's downright inconceivable.
It's worth digging into the history books a bit here. The history of Cal vs. Stanford basketball is not pretty. The Bears have won just two games in the last twenty nine games. One of those wins was a last second thriller that required a best ever performance from a Cal legend. The other win came in part because Stanford suffered some critical injuries both before and during the game. Easy, stress-free wins over a full-strength Stanford just don't happen.
Until this team came around. It's generally idiotic to underestimate what Stanford can do in any scenario, but Cal fans could be excused for just a bit of cautious optimism. If the Bears brought the same level of execution to the court and just mixed in a few good jumpers, the possibility of winning, even at Maples, was there.
All it took was Mikayla Lyles. This was Lyles' biggest performance of her career by far, but I can't say I was completely shocked. Lyles has never played major minutes - she's basically been an occasional zone buster. The coaches have always raved about her shooting ability, but I think what was always holding her back was her defense. Well, that concern looks to be a thing of the past, because she played excellent defense to go along with her ability to knock down shots. Also, she tweeted this just prior to the game:
Her first 3 pointer gave Cal their first lead of the game, 15-14. Her last 3 gave Cal a 9 point lead. Two minutes later the Bears would enter the half with an eight point lead, and Stanford would never get closer than that the rest of the way.
It was the missing ingredient. The Bears hardly dominated on offense, but they didn't need to. They only needed to hit enough shots to support their ability to play defense and rebound. Lyles provided just that, and all of a sudden space seemed to open up. Gennifer Brandon hit a few shots. Layshia got off a few mid-range jumpers. Brittany Boyd had space to get into the lane a bit more often.
In CGB's preview we identified 3 things to do again and 3 things to NOT do again. Let's run through them again:
Dominate on the boards: CHECK
Draw more fouls and make free throws*: CHECK
Hope Stanford misses their 3s: CHECK
*23-31 from the line, and 10-13 from Brittany Boyd. Good free throw shooting turned a potential nail-biter into a comfortable win.
DON'T DO AGAIN
Miss a ton of jumpers: CHECK
Let Stanford beat the press: CHECK
Let Chiney dominate: CHECK
So major kudos go to Lindsay Gottlieb and the players for repeating what worked and fixing what didn't work. Again, it's not like Cal suddenly knocked down every open look or Chiney couldn't get anything going - but the Bears just needed a little boost to get over the hump, and they more than found it.
Other things that impressed me:
-Just 5 turnovers for Cal, compared to 12 for Stanford. Cal's defenders did a great job constantly stripping the ball, as the Bears created all kinds of extra possessions that way.
-Gennifer Brandon, who struggled by her lofty standards on Tuesday but bounced back with an impressive double double.
-Talia Caldwell's offensive rebounding. This isn't a new thing, but it still needs to be mentioned every game because I'm always in awe.
-Cal's ability on defense to constantly harass Chiney Ogwumike without leaving other Stanford players wide open. Cal seemed faster than Stanford on Tuesday, and that advantage seemed even more pronounced on Sunday.
So, what does this mean? Well, here's the big picture:
1. A top 2 seed in March is very much on the table.
2. The Pac-12 race is on.
Here's a not so bold prediction: Cal and Stanford will not go through the rest of the Pac-12 regular season unscathed. UCLA in particular is too good and the rest of the conference has improved enough that somebody will stub their toe. Even when Cal beat Stanford in 2009, the sense was that Stanford was the superior team, and sure enough they went on to win the regular season crown convincingly. It won't be so easy this year.
Those UCLA Bruins will be in town next week, along with a USC team that has tortured the Bear over the last few years. So the road doesn't get much, if any, easier. But this team can carry all kinds of confidence in their own abilities into the rest of the season - along with the knowledge that they might have added the shooter they've needed.