STANFORD-Days like today just don't happen for Cal fans. Months like this one just don't happen for Cal fans. Cal fans are supposed to be perpetually disappointed, let-down and cynical. If there's a crucial game to lose, chances are, the Bears will find some way to lose it.
But not today. Not here. Not on this floor.
Today, a fairy tale came true. A red sea parted. And there was senior Patrick Christopher, mentally and physically exhausted with the effort he had just turned in, standing like a blue-and-gold Moses with his arms outspread, palms to the sky, leading a chant that rose up like a storm from the rafters of Stanford's Maples Pavilion: Pac! 10! Champs!
After going 6-1 over the past month, the Cal basketball team, with a heart-on-the-hardwood performance, defeated the Cardinal 71-61 to reach the promised land: an undisputed, outright Pac-10 Championship.
"You get to the last game of the season, and after as long as we've been out there, you have a chance to win, gosh, go get it, because you don't know when it's going to come up again. You really don't," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "It's fun to win championships. It's fun for the kids. It's something they'll remember for a long, long time, and if you share it, you're going to get the yeah-buts, and I don't want any yeah-buts."
Christopher's game was emblematic of the entire season, and perhaps even of the 50 years that have passed since Cal (21-9, 13-5 in the Pac-10) last was crowned conference champions.
In the first half, the Bears' second-leading scorer was held to just six points and was mobbed on defense, struggling on two sore knees and a torn sneaker. He was 0-for-3 from three-point range and gave up several key treys that helped the Cardinal (13-17, 7-11) to close a 12-point gap to a mere four by halftime.
"We didn't shoot the ball very well, and we were still up four," Montgomery said. "Generally speaking, somebody's going to step up and start shooting the ball better. Pat did. I thought Theo (Robertson) did a great job of creating opportunities. But even if somebody doesn't jump up and start shooting it, defensively, we were playing well enough to hang in there."
In the second half, Christopher dug deep to find the one thing that the Cal needed most: heart. Out of the break, Christopher shot 6-of-10 from the floor and 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, came up with two steals and a block and scored 17 of his team-high 23 points. Was it, perhaps, due to a sneaker switch?
"He only brought six pairs," chided Montgomery, from the wings of the Maples media work room. Christopher just smiled.
"My shoe was ripping on the side, so it was kind of bothering me because it kept pulling when I would cut," Christopher said. "That's why you're always supposed to be prepared, and that's what I was, baby."
The game started out rocky for the Bears, as they quickly got down 5-0 in the first 2:33 of the contest. From there, Cal went on a 29-13 run to jump into the lead against Stanford's man defense, and held Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate Landry Fields to just 1-of-5 shooting.
But then the Cardinal came back. With 5:14 left in the half, Fields drove the lane and sunk a layup, cutting the Bears' lead to nine. Cal scored just five points in the remainder of the half, as Stanford switched to a zone defense.
The Cardinal then went on a run of their own, scoring 10 points to close out the half with eight coming from Fields, who was being guarded-at that point-by sophomore Jorge Gutierrez, who was nursing a sprained toe on his right foot, suffered earlier in the half.
"He's always valuable. He changes our tempo," Montgomery said of Gutierrez, who came into the game for Omondi Amoke just 6:15 after the tip. "Part of the thing was that we had Omondi in a tough spot. I don't think that that's the best match-up for him, on Fields. But, he got two quick fouls and we didn't have a choice. We were hoping to buy more time for everybody with Omondi defending Fields, but he got two quick fouls and so we had to make an adjustment."
Things didn't get much easier in the second, as Stanford stayed close, never letting the Bears get out to a lead of more than six points. Momentum looked to be turning towards the home team when a three by Jeremy Green brought the Cardinal to within one.
"At one point, I thought we had the game in control," Fields said. "But we had some let-downs in terms of offensive rebounds and just getting stops. The pace of the game quickly changed in their favor."
Despite the fact that Green's trey was his second in less than two minutes scored on Christopher, Cal's 6-foot-5, 220-pounder out of Compton, Calif., came right back and hit a long three of his own to put the Bears up 44-40 with 16:06 left, touching off an 11-5 run.
The next 16 minutes were an all-out back-and-forth battle, with Stanford turning almost exclusively to zone defense to keep Cal out of the low post.
That strategy didn't deter sophomore big man Markhuri Sanders-Frison, who, in the span of just over one minute of game time, tallied four points and three boards before being subbed out for yet another Cal player who brought his Windex: senior Jamal Boykin, who pulled down seven rebounds and scored 13 points in his final regular-season outing.
"Jamal's done a really good job, seriously," Montgomery said. "He's got a huge heart, and he battles every single minute to get done what he gets done."
Neither club shied away from physicality, totaling 30 personal fouls combined, not counting several knock-downs that hobbled Gutierrez and Green.
After a scrum under the basket following two straight misses by Fields with less than eight minutes remaining, Gutierrez came up limping, and had to be helped off the court favoring a sprained left ankle.
Green went down while tussling for a loose ball with Christopher along the Stanford bench with 2:05 left and the Bears leading 64-59, but returned less than a minute later.
But even though its second-leading scorer was able to get off the mat, Stanford was decidedly down for the count, shooting just 1-of-7 down the stretch as Christopher and senior point guard Jerome Randle accounted for each of Cal's seven unanswered points during the game's final 1:42, starting with Christopher's three-point dagger over sophomore Jarrett Mann after Stanford switched back to man defense.
"Whether you're in man or in zone, the shot he hit is a tough shot-a deep three with a hand in his face," said Cardinal head coach Johnny Dawkins. "Give the kid credit. He made some big plays. He not only made some big plays (offensively), but defensively he made big plays, especially down the stretch."
Christopher hammered the shot home with the shot clock down under 10 seconds.
"I called for a ball screen and my man went under, so it was a good look," Christopher said. "I was feeling pretty good in the second half, so I took it and knocked it down."
A Helping Hand
The Bears tallied 14 assists on 59 field goals against the Cardinal, with Randle notching a game-high five helpers. While both Cal and Stanford had eight turnovers, the Cardinal moved the ball with far less efficiency, posting just nine assists on the afternoon.
Free Throws Are Anything But Free
The Bears had a typically good night at the charity stripe, sinking 16-of-19 free throws. Stanford, however, had no such luck, sinking just seven of 13.
That stat, according to Montgomery, largely accounted for the home club's rebound deficiency. Cal out-rebounded the Cardinal 41-30.
"I don't know, statistically, how that played out for us, how many second shots we got off," said Montgomery, "but I will say this: some of those rebounds are missed shots because they missed free throws, and so you can kind of disregard them as being of-value. Those are six rebounds we're supposed to get, that shouldn't even be contested."
Persistence Pays Off
While Montgomery waived off the importance of the rebound differential, he could do no such thing when faced with the fact that the Bears doubled their opponent's output on the offensive glass, picking up 14 boards to Stanford's seven and scoring 18 second-chance points to the Cardinal's nine.
"By golly," Montgomery said with a smile. "I don't know what to tell you. That's just stuff you've got to do."
Stanford's skipper as well understood the impact that that particular statistic had on the game's outcome.
"That was huge," Dawkins said. "They kept getting second-chance opportunities. I can remember a couple of times when we cut the lead to one possession or so, and those offensive rebounds and put-backs were tough blows."
Out of Their Depth
Despite the injury to Gutierrez, the unavailability of 7-foot-3 sophomore Max Zhang and the myriad other health issues that continue to gnaw at the Bears, Montgomery was able to get 13 points off of his bench. It was the third time during Cal's four-game winning streak that the Bears tallied double digits from the pine.
"I told the guys that we're going to have to have more people play, and of course (the response is), 'Yeah right, we've heard that before,'" Montgomery said. "But we're going to have to play more players. We're going to have to rest people."
All eight Cal players who saw action clocked at least 10 minutes on the floor. 11 players clocked time for Stanford, with seven of those seeing more than eight minutes of playing time.
The Bears shot just below their season average of 37% from three-point land, sinking five of 14 (35.7%) from beyond the arc with Christopher doing the lion's share of the work.
The Cardinal, on the other hand, shot just 6-of-19 from three-point land. Fields was 0-for-4 and Green, who came into the game shooting 39.2% from beyond the arc, went 3-of-9, hitting only one of his final four attempts.