Where do you start with this game? As a writer, there are so many potential angles.
It was senior day, and Cal’s two seniors made important contributions to the win. It was Stanford, a rival at all times and a benchmark by which Cal and the rest of the Pac-12 must measure itself. It was Cal rediscovering their offensive mojo against the best defense in the Pac-12. It was the catharsis of various streaks and narratives ending all at once. It was two hours of compelling basketball.
Cal had not beaten Stanford at Haas Pavilion since Alexis Gray-Lawson’s out-of-body experience, and that fact is a reflection both of Stanford’s frustrating consistency and also a heaping collection of weirdness - Cal has won twice at Maples since then and come close at home multiple times.
And yet, as Cal’s lead dwindled from 12 all the way down to 2 with 4:30 left in the game, Cal fans could be forgiven for fearing the worst. How would the Bears respond to the pressure? By nailing three pointers on 3 of their next 5 possessions to turn a close game into a free throw/fouling game situation that Asha Thomas wasn’t going to lose. Each 3 pointer brought the house down a little bit more, as the demons of rough shooting games earlier in conference play died before our eyes. Suddenly a tense, stomach-churning thriller turned into a joyous house party.
There are only two players on the roster who suited up for Cal’s last win over the robber barons. Penina Davidson and Mikayla Cowling contributed 14 points as freshmen in that win, which is oddly two more points than they combined for on Senior Night. But as Coach G described in the post-game ceremony in honor of Penina and Mikayla, they were team-first players from the get-go.
That was reflected in their play against Stanford. Mikayla certainly chipped in with occasional runner and a couple assists, but her biggest role was to frustrate Stanford’s leading scorer Brittany McPhee, who finished just 9-22 from the floor. Meanwhile, Penina excelled in a way that showcased her growth over four years - with interior defense and rebounding. Her activity forced a bunch of missed Stanford shots and 2nd chance opportunities for the Bears.
Still, the star of the day was undoubtedly Asha Thomas. Cal’s diminutive point guard confounded the best defense in the Pac-12 with some truly spectacular attacking play to record 25 points and 4 assists. In a game that challenged ball handlers to make smart decisions in critical spot after critical spot, her choices were nearly flawless. Some of her buckets (particularly as Cal maintained a comfortable 3rd quarter lead) were jaw dropping, and her shot-clock defying deep 3 late in the 4th quarter was the most important shot of the game. She’s not technically a senior, but she damn well played like one.
Freshman Kianna Smith wasn’t far behind Asha with her offensive play. Stanford (as per usual) weren’t going to let Kristine Anigwe beat them, and so the pressure was on Cal’s guards to carry the offense. Just like Asha, Kianna used her handles and sense of space to find driving lanes that led to pull up buckets or pick and roll opportunities for her teammates. In the end Cal’s primary ball handlers combined for 39 points on 28 shots.
It was a great display of balanced, team offense of the type we haven’t seen often in Pac-12 play. But the defense might have been even better.
The Bears set the tone early with four first quarter steals, two of which led to transition layups on the other end. The Bears figured out how to harass Stanford’s primary scorers without leaving easy opportunities for their secondary options. Alanna Smith and Brittany McPhee did combine for 44 points, but they needed 46 shots to get there and turned the ball over 9 times. Neither ever looked particularly comfortable.
And so the Bears earned a win that is as significant objectively as it is emotionally. Cal now has a top 25 RPI win to go along with a resume free of bad losses. If they can take care of business next week in the Pacific Northwest they will enter the Pac-12 tournament with a solid 11-7 conference record . . . and the confidence of knowing that they can compete and beat any team the Pac can throw at them if they play their game.
What a difference one game can make.