Unlike many years in the past, it wasn't unfathomable to imagine the California Golden Bears beating the Stanford Cardinal last night.
Surely it wouldn't be easy, but they wouldn't need a miracle despite a win being a major milestone not only for them but for the Pac-12 - it would've been the first time since 2009 that anyone in the conference had beaten the Cardinal anywhere.
Yet even with a significant advantage on the offensive boards (21-5), Cal failed to leave Haas Pavilion last night with a win. So what went wrong for the home team?
1. Stanford dared Cal's weaker shooting guards to shoot; Cal shot 2-for-21 from deep
The obvious result of that is that Cal never forced Stanford to extend their defense and give their post players room to work. But it's how Stanford accomplishes that in comparison to other teams that have just sat in a zone the entire game that's really important.
The thing is, and I remain surprised that more Cal opponents don't do this, Stanford simply didn't guard Brittany Boyd (0-for-5 from 3-point range last night) or Eliza Pierre (0-for-3) from beyond the arc. As it has been for Pierre's entire career against Stanford, VanDerveer had her team give the senior 3-5 feet of space whenever she had the ball above the arc. It's not as pronounced with Boyd because if you give her too much room to play with she's creative enough to make something happen; Pierre just wasn't really tonight. And really, it's not only that Pierre isn't known for her 3-point prowess (she's just 4-for-20 for the season), but also that she's uncomfortable pulling up for a midrange shot and knocking that down (her 2-point percentage is 33.33% this season). So when Cal gave her the ball, Stanford basically dared her to shoot while simultaneously betting that doing so would take away an entire side of the floor.
What that means is that whenever Pierre was on the floor, Stanford defended as though they were playing 5 on 4 and tried to negate her defensive impact by assuming Cal would struggle to score. Boyd's ability as a playmaker forces defenses to rotate over to her even if they decide to just take their time and jab at her instead of fully closing out. And you can guess where they used that extra defender: in the paint.
In short, it's not that Cal is an inefficient 3-point shooting team but that it's clearly not their comfort zone: over the course of the season, Layshia Clarendon (31.3%) and Afure Jemerigbe (32.6%) are solid and in the spurts that Mikayla Lyles is in the game it's obvious that she is a shooter despite her poor 3-point percentage (8-for-30). But they really only have two reliable 3-point shooters and neither averages more than one made three per game. Then they have two other 3-point shooters in the perimeter rotation - Boyd (26.8%) and Pierre (20%) - who are below average shooters who make less than one a game.
From an opponent's perspective, if you want to beat Cal, gambling on giving up one or two threes a game - until they force you to guard them - is a low-risk proposition compared to giving up a shot off a post move within five feet to Gennifer Brandon, Talia Caldwell, or Reshanda Gray. Most teams do that by playing zone, but Cal's poise and Boyd's court vision has picked that apart. Stanford has consistently taken that risk against Cal by simply not guarding people who they preferred to shoot.
2. Chiney Ogwumike entered beast mode; Cal was not able to deactivate beast mode
With the game tied at 42 with just over 12 minutes left in the game, Cardinal forward Chiney Ogwumike got the ball in post and scored on a decisive post move seemingly before her defender Talia Caldwell even had a chance to react to her having the ball. That's an exaggeration, but that was Ogwumike's y'all can't hold me tonight moment in which she formally announced that she was neither to be stopped nor contained.
That's a scary position to be in, even if you're playing on your home floor. And Ogwumike didn't miss after that, scoring 8 points in the final 12 minutes she was in the game.
But, more importantly, increasing attention to Ogwumike was rendered futile by teammates stepping up and making Cal pay for being left alone or disregarded. Joslyn Tinkle (8 points) and Amber Orrange (15 points) each made plays in those final 12 minutes to distance Stanford from Cal.
3. Stanford was prepared for Cal's pressure
Pac-12 color commentator Mary Murphy mentioned a couple of times during the broadcast that the way Stanford responded to the press was very different from how they approached it against the Connecticut Huskies: they attacked it rather than passively trying to just get through it. At the center of that effort was Cardinal point guard Amber Orrange.
Orrange did not have a great game as a ball handler as she had five turnovers and made a few questionable decisions with the ball. But it was her aggressive mindset as a scorer that made a huge difference for Stanford as Cal tried to take them out of their offense with pressure defense. Even if she did make some mistakes, her aggression in attacking Cal's press - when they tried - and aggressively going to the rim in halfcourt situations made a big difference for Stanford.
Fittingly, Orrange was a major player on the play that made it feel like the game was over. Off an outlet pass from Ogwumike, Orrange flung a perfect pass about 2/5 of a court length to a streaking Tinkle in stride for a layup that put Stanford up by 6 with 6:04 left. Six points doesn't normally feel like a big deal, but in a game with 13 ties to that point in which neither team had led by more than six, it just felt like the Cardinal had found their rhythm and it wasn't the Bears' night.
That was before Tinkle's prayer pass off the backboard with two seconds left on the shot clock that Ogwumike gathered up and scored off.
Even though Cal had every reason to think - not just have faith or a self-serving belief - that they could win, it ended up being Stanford's night once again.