A FEW YEARS ago, Cal athletic director Sandy Barbour began receiving e-mails—from Stanford fans, of all people—thanking her for resurrecting the Cal women's basketball program, which had gone 13 seasons without a winning record before finally breaking the string in 2005--06. But now that the Bears are ranked No. 11 in the AP poll and are again a threat to break Stanford's eight-year Pac-10 title streak? Barbour laughs and says, "I haven't had one of those e-mails in a while."
When Joanne Boyle took over the Cal program in April '05 and inherited a highly ranked recruiting class, which included 6'1" forward Ashley Walker, now a national player of the year candidate, guard Alexis Gray-Lawson, center Devanei Hampton and forward Shantrell Sneed. Together they've helped transform the program from a Pac-10 afterthought into a championship contender, increasing home attendance to an average of 2,503 fans a game and advancing to the last three NCAA tournaments. But they have yet to win a Pac-10 title, and they haven't had much success against their cross-bay rivals, who have beaten them in 43 of their last 50 games, including six of the last seven—and all three meetings last season.
Cal (13--2, 4--0 in the Pac-10 through Sunday) will have another chance to address that imbalance when it faces the ninth-ranked Cardinal (13--3, 4--0) on Jan. 18 in Berkeley in a clash for the Pac-10 lead that is expected to draw more than 10,000 fans. "It's always great to beat Stanford, but it would be really great to beat them this year because the Pac-10 is so crazy," says Walker. "We all think the [conference] title is going to come down to one game, and we want it. This is the last chance for our class."
Though there is a lot on the line for both teams, their rivalry is informed more by mutual respect than by the hostility that marks, say, a Duke-- North Carolina game, or by the insults and pranks that attend the Stanford-Cal football rivalry. ( Stanford center Jayne Appel ruefully recalls being blasted awake by the Cal trumpet section at 4 a.m. on the day of the 2006 Big Game.)
"Our rivalry with Cal is kind of like a sibling thing," says Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer. "We're O.K. with them doing really well as long as we do better."
Both teams have kinks to work out before they can claim superiority of the Bay, much less the Pac-10. Stanford's frontline—starters Appel, a 6'4" junior with an almost 7-foot wingspan, 6'4" sophomore Kayla Pedersen and 6'1" senior Jillian Harmon, along with 6'2" freshman reserve Nnemkadi Ogwumike—is arguably the best in the country, but its backcourt has struggled since losing starting point guard JJ Hones with a torn left ACL on Nov. 23.
The Bears' strength is likewise in the low post, but the 6'3" Hampton, the 2007 Pac-10 player of the year, is still getting back in shape after sitting out six months following arthroscopic surgery to remove torn cartilage from her right knee in November '07. For all their experience, the Bears are still green in some respects. Last month they blew a 26-point halftime lead over then No. 5 Oklahoma before losing 86--75 in San Jose. "We had never been up on a nationally ranked team by that much," says Walker. "I think we had this culture shock, like, 'Oh, geez, is this really us?' You have to learn how to play with that kind of lead."
If the Bears emerge from the Battle of the Bay in first place in the Pac-10, they'll have to learn how to play with that kind of a lead too.
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