For a summary of Stanford’s 2009-2010 campaign, look no further than Saturday’s 71-61 loss to Cal on Senior Night.
The Cardinal (13-17, 7-11 Pac-10) lived and died with the three, relied heavily on Landry Fields, missed free throws, generated little presence down low and was scrappy enough to give its opponent serious fits before fading late in the game.
It was a contest with much on the line. For Cal (21-9, 13-5), the school’s first conference title since 1960. For Stanford, the chance to prevent its rival from attaining that goal outright, and positioning in the Pac-10 Tournament – a win would keep the Cardinal out of the play-in game, while a loss would put its standing in jeopardy.
Cal was ranked in the top 15 to begin the year, while Stanford was expected to place last in the conference, and the Golden Bears had beat up on the Cardinal in early January, winning 92-66 in Berkeley. But despite the apparent disparities between the two teams, the rematch was an intense, closely contested affair.
“Both teams played like the game meant a lot,” said Stanford head coach Johnny Dawkins. “Both teams played as hard as they could play.”
Certainly, neither squad suffered from lack of effort, but there were clear areas where Cal was able to gain an early advantage – namely, rebounding and scoring in the paint. Stanford’s small lineup – Jack Trotter is the only big man in the starting five – had difficulty contending with the Bears’ front line. The result was a 10-point Cal lead at the 7:44 mark of the first half, with the Bears winning the rebounding battle (15 boards, with six offensive, versus Stanford’s five total rebounds, all defensive) and dominating in the paint – nine of their points came on second chance opportunities (Stanford had zero) and 16 of their total points came down low (Stanford had four).
“We had some letdowns in offensive rebounds and stops, and the pace of the game quickly changed in their favor,” Fields said.
But Stanford, as it has for much of its season, would not relent. A late first half run cut the deficit to four going into the locker room – Maples Pavilion was as loud as it has been all year, and momentum appeared to be in Stanford’s favor, even as Fields appeared to be carrying the team by himself. Outside of his 15 points, only Drew Shiller had scored more than one basket, Jeremy Green was cold (1-7 in the first half) and the Cardinal was 3-8 from the foul line. But there were positives, as Stanford was able to limit Cal’s domination in the paint by rotating in the entirety of their big man depth, and a quick switch to a zone late in the half momentarily stymied the Golden Bears.
“Stanford had a solid gameplan. They went big, which is something they haven’t done,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery, who won his first game as an opponent at Maples after coaching the Cardinal for 18 years. “Our help situation was hard to come by. They make it difficult to do that.”
Indeed, the game appeared to be in reach, particularly after the Cardinal tied the score with just over 14 minutes to play. But Cal went on a quick 9-2 run to open a lead, and Stanford was never able to close it again. The same problems came back to haunt the Cardinal – trailing by three with under three minutes to play, Stanford had two opportunities to corral missed shots by the Bears. Both times, a Cal player grabbed the offensive board, and after three different attempts, scored.
The dagger came one possession later when Patrick Christopher stole the ball from Trotter and drained a long three-pointer to establish an eight point lead with 1:40 to play.
“I saw the shot clock: it was down to about nine. It was a good look and I was feeling pretty good in the second half,” Christopher said.
Christopher was integral to Cal’s success: he finished with a team-high 23 points after scoring just six in the first half. A shoe change and a self-proclaimed “tightened game” led to his resurgence late. He was forced to account for a quiet second period by reigning Pac-10 Player of the Week Jamal Boykin (13 points total, but just two after half time) and a sub-par game from Jerome Randle, who finished with 11 points but was just 2-10 from the field.
Dawkins acknowledged Shiller for his tight man-to-man defense on Randle, one of the top point guards on the West Coast.
“Randle is a heck of a player and game planning for him is a hard thing,” Dawkins said. “I give Drew Schiller a lot of credit. He had to stick with Randle. Containing him is the best you’re going to be able to do and I thought Drew did a good job of that.”
Although neither player would admit it, the secondary battle of the night was for Pac-10 Player of the Year, which was largely believed to be between Randle, Fields and Washington’s Quincy Pondexter. Fields, who had a game-high 25 points and 12 rebounds, said that he’d give the award to Randle, while Randle, much to Christopher’s dismay, said he’d give it to Fields.
Neither Fields nor Randle has a vote, though, and the conference’s coaches selected Randle over Fields on Monday as Pac-10 Player of the Year. Fields still made the All-Pac-10 First Team, while Green made the Second Team.
Despite this loss and the loss to Cal, the weekend was not all bad for Stanford. The Cardinal avoided the play-in game when Oregon beat Washington State later in the night. Stanford, seeded seventh, will face Arizona State, ranked second, on Mar. 11 in the opening round of the Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center. The Cardinal dropped both of its games to the Sun Devils this year.
Los Angeles beckons, and the Cardinal goes in with few outsized expectations and little to lose. Montgomery described Stanford as a team that gives its opponents “fits,” but for the Cardinal to have an extended postseason, it will have to do more than be a nuisance.