The Cardinal knew they were going to get the best shot that Cal could deliver at Haas Pavilion with the Golden Bears clinging to NCAA tournament hopes. Stanford found a way to win 72-66 in a game with five lead changes and stretches of poor shooting from the Cardinal.
The knockdown fight had the same feel of many of the tough contests between the two sides the past few years, but before the game Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb showed the quality of the rivalry when she presented Tara VanDerveer with a tribute for her 1,000th career win.
"I was very touched by the gift from the Cal program," VanDerveer said. "I thought it showed a lot of class. I knew they weren't going to give us a gift in the game and I thought they played extremely hard."
Stanford appeared ready to assert some control in the second quarter when Karlie Samuelson's three gave Stanford a 29-23 lead. But Cal went on an 8-0 run and the first half ended in a 31-31 tie.
After the break it was Cal who threatened to wrest away control of the game.
At one point in the third quarter Stanford missed 11 straight shots, and the crowd at Cal was hopping as fans were eager to see their inconsistent team get a signature win. But the resilience of the Cardinal held firm and Samuelson stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer and pull-up jumper on consecutive possessions, which got Stanford within 43-40.
And time and again sophomore Alanna Smith led the charge back into the game for the Cardinal. She finished with 27 points and seemingly as many highlight plays.
"Today was Alanna's day," VanDerveer. "She was the difference maker for our team knocking down threes and running the floor really hard. They didn't have an answer for her."
Smith showed the diversity of her offensive game with three 3s, post moves and she went 6-of-8 from the line. She also snagged a couple passes from Marta Sniezek when she beat the Cal defenders down the court after a Golden Bears score.
Her inexperience also showed in a key moment. After she made a three to give Stanford a 64-61 lead with 2:40 left in the game, Smith fouled Mikayla Cowling on a three-point attempt. It was Smith's fifth foul and allowed Cowling to tie the game from the line.
While there are still moments of youthful missteps, the sophomore has put together a string of productive nights for the Cardinal. It's clear that Smith is more comfortable than ever on the court for the Cardinal and is capable of taking over games.
"I think it's a mindset of being aggressive," Smith said. "That's something Tara is telling us every day in practice, to be aggressive. That's been helping me."
Smith arrived from Australia with significant expectations as a highly-touted international player. It took Smith some time to acclimate to the game and a new country.
"It's a huge adjustment coming from an international background and a different style of game," she said. "I think it has finally has become maybe a little bit easier for me."
Smith's development has come at the perfect time to help cover for McCall's struggles from the field, 4-of-15, which has persisted for several weeks. But McCall and Brittany McPhee, who at one point was 0-of-8 shooting in the game, delivered in the clutch moments.
McCall attacked the basket with a minute left in the game and the score tied at 66. She was fouled and calmly hit both free throws, giving her a double-double (11 points, 14 rebounds). She then defended Kristine Anigwe and forced Cal's best player to miss a tough shot, giving the ball back to Stanford.
When McPhee missed a shot that would have closed out the game, McCall latched onto the ball and forced a jump ball, with the possession arrow pointed to Stanford. On the ensuing inbound play McPhee knifed into the lane, caught the pass and made the layup to put Stanford ahead 70-66 with 11.4 seconds remaining.
"Tonight Britt struggled offensively (and) Bird struggled offensively," VanDerveer said. "But, they stayed with things and made plays down the stretch. I think it points to their confidence. They're very confident players. And we have confidence in them."