In the final game of the 2018-19 regular season, Stanford men’s basketball (15-15, 8-10 Pac-12) took a hard-fought loss to the Cal Golden Bears (8-22, 3-15) in Maples Pavilion, ending the year with a 1-1 split of the Bay Area rivalry in one of the strangest games of the season. The Cardinal missed 21 straight three-point shots and trailed by as many as 21 points before making four consecutive deep balls to cut the lead to three. Stanford fought impossibly hard down the stretch only to have the win elude them in the very guts of the game, as Berkeley won 64-59.
As is tradition in the final home games for Stanford sports, Thursday was Senior Night, and the team celebrated senior center Josh Sharma before the game. Sharma has had an exceptional senior season, averaging 9.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and posting the highest field goal percentage in program history. His .698 shooting leads the Pac-12, and is the highest percentage posted in the conference in 20 years.
“For young guys like me, and a lot of other guys on the team, to see the work that he puts in every day, noticing the growth in the season. You have to be tough-minded to keep working, he’s become everything to our team,” sophomore forward KZ Okpala said about the graduating big man.
His matchup on Thursday night was Cal’s freshman center, the 7-foot-3 freshman Connor Vanover. Vanover, who averages six points per game, started the contest 5-5 from the floor, with three of those five shots landing from three-point range, putting the Golden Bears up 19-2.
Vanover had the best game of his short college career against the Cardinal, finishing the game with a career best in points with 24 on 9-12 shooting, and making 5-6 total three pointers, smashing his previous record of two made in a game. He also set a career best in blocks with six.
“He’s a skilled big man, and clearly can shoot it well,” Sharma said. “We knew he could shoot it coming into this game, but he hit some big shots early on.”
The Cardinal could not find the bucket again until nearly seven minutes into the contest, when freshman guard Bryce Wills made one of two free throws to stop the 17-0 Cal run. Sophomore point guard Daejon Davis was sidelined once again with an ankle injury, and his absence was palpable in the Cardinal offense, as the Cardinal could not move the ball.
Wills, who has been the primary ball handler with Davis sidelined, struggled mightily in the first half, making bad passes and struggling to find open men. The Cardinal ended the first half with eight turnovers and three assists.
Vanover made his fourth straight three-pointer to remain perfect, as Cal continued to walk all over the Cardinal. He would miss his fifth, but worry not, he made the sixth one.
Stanford’s early offense ran entirely through Okpala, who scored 11 of Stanford’s first 12 points. The entire Stanford offense revolved around Okpala making heroic efforts in the paint and somehow finishing the shots. There was almost no ability for the team to space the floor, as the Cardinal shot 0-12 from three in the first half.
Stanford appeared to gain a little bit of momentum when freshman guard Cormac Ryan dove for a ball and flung it blindly down the court to the streaking junior guard Marcus Sheffield, who picked up the loose change for an easy two. The momentum amounted to the Cardinal closing the gap to 12 points, down 32-20 with 3:30 left.
Cal didn’t play absolutely incredible basketball, they just happened to be shooting the ball exceptionally well for parts of the first half, and annoyed Stanford enough on defense to keep the Cardinal shooting percentages low. Cal shot an absurd 6-10 from beyond in the first half, and 15-34 from the floor, to Stanford’s 10-28.
“We weren’t locked in,” said Okpala.
The first half ended just as chaotic and nonsensically as it began. Okpala received a dime pass from sophomore forward Oscar Da Silva down the court and threw down a hammer of a dunk with six seconds remaining. Cal inbounded the ball, and with Stanford mentally already in the locker room, Cal’s Matt Bradley drained a pull-up, buzzer-beating three-pointer from near half-court. Cal led at the break 37-24.
The second half began just as auspiciously as it ended, with Stanford turning the ball over twice and Bradley draining a three-point shot. Things went from bad to worse quickly, as the Cardinal turned the ball over four times in three minutes, and Cal gained their largest lead of the game at 21 points after Vanover hit his fifth three of the game.
The Cardinal continued their stone cold three-point shooting, even missing some open shots off of good ball movement. The atmosphere became tense every time they released a deep ball, with the crowd anxious to see if it made it in. The team was 0-21 from beyond before making its first deep bucket.
That said, the Cardinal improved their ball movement, picking up seven assists compared to the three they had in the first half.
Cal’s offense kept plugging at nearly the same rate that Stanford’s did, maintaining a consistent lead of 18-20 points as the two traded baskets. With three-point shooting as the Cardinal’s catch-up mechanism of choice, they missed shot after shot to remain at a massive deficit.
The majority of the second half was spent watching the two teams fail to score on each other, as there was a nearly four-minute long stretch of time where neither team scored. Then, just as Stanford got a steal and some momentum, a referee fell over on the court grabbing at his leg, forcing a timeout. That’s just the kind of night that this was.
With four minutes remaining in the first half, Sheffield made a corner three that caused Maples to explode into applause. The Cardinal had done it. They made a three-pointer.
Cal responded with a layup and a flop by Bradley that was so obvious that even the Premier League wouldn’t have carded it. But the Pac-12 refs did.
And then suddenly, the Cardinal couldn’t miss from beyond. Okpala drilled a second straight three, and on the ensuing possession, Ryan knocked down a deep ball from the top of the key. The Cal lead, which seemed insurmountable for so long, was down to seven points with 2:28 to play.
On the ensuing possession, Okpala grabbed a rebound and Bradley picked up his fifth foul, exiting the game and sending Okpala to the line. He made one shot, and knocked the next one off the rim. Stanford grabbed the offensive board, and Cormac Ryan made Stanford’s fourth consecutive three pointer, bringing the lead to three.
A few plays later, a beautiful pass by Ryan set up Sharma for an open dunk, and closed the lead to four. Stanford elected to intentionally foul Cal’s Darius McNeill, who missed both free throws. Cormac Ryan got the ball, but shorted a three, essentially extinguishing Stanford’s chances, as Cal made their next two free throws, and Sharma, fouled on the next possession, missed a pair.
In his final game at Maples, Sharma fouled out attempting to give the Cardinal a chance at the win, and was greeted on the bench by a standing ovation from the entirety of Maples Pavilion.
“Obviously this one hurts,” he said, reflecting on his performance in his final game.
The Cardinal ended the game with only two players in double figures. Sharma had 11 points and 13 boards in his final performance with the Cardinal, and Okpala carried the offensive load with 21 points, eight rebounds and two assists, on a surprisingly efficient 9-14 shooting.
With the regular season over, the Pac-12 tournament presents itself as an opportunity for the Cardinal to hit the reset button. With seeding still in flux until the weekend is over, Stanford will prepare for an unknown opponent until they hit the courts in Las Vegas next week.
“We still know that we can beat any team in this conference. We’re going to go out and give it our all,” said Okpala.
Contact Bobby Pragada at bpragada ‘at’ stanford.edu.