It wasn't easy, but for just the third* time since 1993, Maples Pavilion was declared "Bear Territory" yesterday.
Oh, and the Bears were also declared "outright, no-doubt-about-it, don't-have-to-share" Pacific-10 Conference Champions. So that feels pretty good too.
Last week's celebration following the Bears' victory over Arizona State was a huge, stirring celebration that capped a two-month-long campaign through treacherous Pac-10 waters. When the confetti finally rained from the rafters of Haas Pavilion, you could sense that Cal fans everywhere eased up on some of the last half-century's worth of tension, surprised and delighted that Cal finally won the big game when they needed to, when everyone expected them to, when the target was squarely on their backs. It was done, it was over, Cal was finally on top again.
So even though Saturday's game was at rival Stanford, even though an outright conference title was still at stake, you could perhaps be excused for expecting a bit of a letdown game from the Bears. Saturday at Maples was not the Bears' finest performance of the season, but it was enough, and you could hardly blame the players themselves for a lack of effort. Shots at times weren't falling, the opposing defense was once keying in on Jerome Randle (with yet another version of a zone defense), Landry Fields once again went off on a one-man mission, and yet...as a team, the Bears found just enough offense to pull away from the Cardinal and secure victory.
Objective observers might be tempted to award 'Player of the Game' to Landry Fields, and looking at his box score line, some of those numbers are hard to argue with - 25 points (over 40% of the Cardinal's total), 12 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocked shots and a steal. The man was everywhere on the court yesterday, and not only was he nigh-unstoppable on some occasions, but he was far and away the only reason Stanford had a chance in this game. If your definition of "Most Valuable Player" is "the player whose team would suffer the most if he were removed," then yeah, Fields would be the quintessential MVP.
However, box scores express all sorts of minute, specialized statistics, but only imply the most important statistic of all: wins vs. losses. For all Fields' vaunted heroics, he still missed more shots than he took (10 for 21), missed all four of his 3-pt. attempts, and while he scored more than 40% of his team's points, he used more than 38% of their shot attempts in doing so.
No, if you want a real MVP, the player whose removal would have affected the outcome the most, I can't help but look to Patrick Christopher. Playing in his school-record 139th game, P-Chris provided the boost the Bears need on both ends of the court. He played all but 28 seconds of the game, putting up 23 points of his own on 8 of 18 shooting. He also contributed 7 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists and a blocked shot, not to mention some stifling defense of Stanford's Jeremy Green, a dangerous shooter in his own right (who has broken Casey Jacobsen's school record for 3-pointers in a season), who eventually ended up with 13 points but needed 15 shots to get there, and who never really got into a rhythm.
Of course, compiling statistics is all well and good, but it's what you do in crunch time that everyone remembers, and with the game clock winding down, it was Patrick who stepped up to seal the victory. Stanford had not led since the opening minutes, yet they battled back to a 44-all tie in the second half, and while the Bears would retake the lead, the Cardinal just kept hanging around. Landry Fields (who else?) hit a jumper with 3:18 left to pull Stanford within 3, and the longtime Cal fan in me feared that the Bears would choke this one away.
However, the season-ticket holder in me, having watched this team all year, should have known better. On their next offensive possession, Jerome Randle missed two three-pointer attempts, but P-Chris grabbed the first rebound to keep the possession alive, and Boykin grabbed the second then laid it back in for a 5-point Cal lead. Stanford knew it needed to score on their next possession to keep touch with Cal, but Christopher stepped in front of a Jack Trotter pass to steal the ball, then hit a HUGE three-pointer down at the other end. Just like that, it was an 8-point lead with under 2 minutes to play, and Stanford fell into desperation mode. Fouling the Bears and forcing them to hit free throws hasn't been an effective strategy all year, and both Christopher and Randle hit a pair from the charity stripe to keep the game out of reach.
This is different sort of Cal team than they were even four months ago. Mike Montgomery has called this team 'fragile' because they rely so heavily on jump shooting, which can be notoriously streaky, to win games, yet I don't think that they're nearly as fragile as they were even a month ago. I think they play better team defense than they did to start the season, and when shots aren't falling, defensive effort is often the one thing you can control on the court; it's what kept them in games they might have let get away from them earlier in the year (such as at Washington or at USC). When a man gets beat, the help defense is there more reliably, and I think that picks up everyone's game. Moreover, I think this team has learned to run its offense when Jerome Randle isn't scoring; more importantly, I think Randle has learned to keep running the offense even when he has been unable to break down his defender. This team still has the potential to lay an egg (as they did a couple weeks ago at Oregon State), but I'm a lot more encouraged by this team's ability to put together several solid performances in a row than I was in January, and that's something that will serve them well as they enter postseason tournament time.
* Yes, I'm counting the one win by Cal's women's basketball team at Maples, in 2007, over that same stretch. I was fortunate enough to be at both the men's game in 2006 and the women's game in 2007, and let me tell you, declaring Maples Pavilion to be "Bear Territory" is an absolute highlight for a Cal fan's lifetime.