Right now, Stanford is a better basketball team than Cal. There are specific basketball things that they do better than almost anybody in the nation. And for 27 minutes, they were able to do whatever they wanted against Cal, building a 59-29 lead in the process.
You read that right. Cal was getting doubled up, losing by 30. It was exactly as ugly as the score indicated.
Was it Brittany Boyd's hard foul on Erika McCall that woke the Bears up? Maybe it was Coach G saying something to her team as the refs reviewed the foul. Maybe the Bears just decided they didn't want to go home without their pride.
Whatever the reason, the Bears awakened from hibernation and nearly produced one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history. Over the final 13 minutes of game time Cal outscored Stanford 35 to 11 and cut Stanford's lead from 30 all the way down to five.
As best I can tell, the NCAA record for largest comeback by a women's basketball team is 32 points, but when that happened it wasn't on the home court of the #3 team in the country. What the Bears did in the 2nd half was remarkable, and I suppose the real shame is that Cal fell so far behind in the first place.
So, what changed? What did Cal do wrong to fall so far behind, and what did they do right to almost claw their way back? Reshanda Gray picking up two early fouls and having very little impact on the game was one negative. The obvious answer is that they just hit shots. Cal was pretty cold through most of the first half, but they got shots to fall during their comeback. But that's a gross oversimplification. For the first 27 minutes, Cal wasn't drawing fouls or pulling down offensive rebounds. They were taking one shot, typically a mediocre look, and nothing else. It wasn't good basketball, and it wasn't Cal basketball. Stanford can beat you even when you're at your best, but Cal wasn't even making them earn it.
So Cal started to play Cal basketball. Brittany Boyd lowered her head and charged into the paint, no matter how many Stanford post players were waiting for her. Gennifer Brandon decided that every rebound was hers. Afure Jemerigbe knew when to shoot the jumper and went to drive. Courtney Range played with no fear. And a Stanford team used to watching Pac-12 teams roll over and play dead in the 2nd half didn't know how to react when another team decided they wanted to go down swinging.
Stanford's spell over the rest of the Pac-12 is really impressive. The dominance is so ingrained, so perpetual that I truly think it impacts how other teams play them. Teams are tentative, unsure of themselves. They rush shots, commit bad fouls, and beat themselves. It's a gigantic mental hurdle for opposing coaches to convince their teams that Stanford can be beaten.
For 27 minutes, Cal played like one of those teams, a team more afraid of making a mistake than making a play, a team that probably let Stanford get into their head. That must have been galling for Lindsay Gottlieb, who has worked so hard over the last few years to ingrain in this team that they can compete with anybody, especially Stanford.
It's a shame that it took so long for this team to remember that they don't back down from anybody. But they did remember, and it made for a much more satisfying game, and much more optimism heading into Sunday's rematch at Haas.
Finally a word on Brittany Boyd: She doesn't care about your boos, Stanford fans. Her foul on Erika McCall was ill-advised, and I wouldn't have been up in arms if it had been called a flagrant. But it wasn't nearly as bad as it appeared in real time. In any case, Brittany Boyd's crime was trying too hard to tie-up the ball. Boyd scored 14 points after that foul, and it's probably not a coincidence. When Boyd drew an (obvious) blocking foul in the final minute and the Stanford crowd took the opportunity to boo her one last time, I just laughed. As if Brittany Boyd cares about those boos.
We'll do this all over again on Sunday. I hope that Cal brings the same mentality that brought them back into the game for 40 minutes. I know this much: win or lose, this team will do it with every last ounce of energy they have.