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Stanford overcomes Cal in Pac-12

SEATTLE -- Even the ending was a little weird. Cal's Mercedes Jefflo buried a 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded, and there was an odd pause in KeyArena, as if, for a moment, no one knew quite how to react.

Stanford won its 11th Pac-12 tournament title Sunday night by defeating Cal 61-60, and the moment seemed a little hesitant -- much like the Cardinal have a lot of the season.

Stanford didn't come flying off the bench in a raucous celebration. Rather, it felt more like a reserved, happy relief.

After everything the Cardinal have experienced this season -- abandoning the triangle offense they ran for a dozen years; beating Connecticut (still the season's most surprising result); an uncharacteristic number of losses (nine); finishing without a Pac-12 regular-season title for the first time in a decade and a half -- this end feels kind of like a square peg in a round hole. It doesn't quite fit what has come before it.

Again, it's a little weird. Not that it wasn't hard-earned or, to use the Cardinal's new favorite word, "gritty."

"Gritty has been a season-long thing," Stanford guard Lili Thompson said.

It is undoubtedly gritty to win a conference tournament title in a year your mystique has been chipped away at many turns. It's just another chapter of Stanford's "journey," as Tara VanDerveer has taken to calling it.

"This is as rewarding a championship as I've ever felt," VanDerveer said. "We definitely had to scrap and battle for it. It has been hard. We don't have the givens that maybe we had in the past. We have young, young players that have to play big roles. I think our seniors have really stayed with things. They knew it was going to be tough, and they kept battling. We had to run a whole new system, and it's taken a while to get it figured out."

Senior guard Amber Orrange, the Cardinal's quiet leader, has often taken the burden of pushing her team through the tough days with her steady play.

"It's the first time we've really been this up and down," Orrange said. "I feel like I've just got to be the same every day -- can't get too high or too low. I have to be the same person, stay composed. But for three games in three days, we played consistently, and that means a lot to us. Today, we just stayed with things, even though I didn't feel like I had my best day."

On this night, her teammates picked up some of that slack. Senior forward Taylor Greenfield topped her career night Saturday against Arizona State with another. Greenfield finished with 20 points against the Bears -- 12 in the second half -- and became the first non-starter in tournament history to earn Most Outstanding Player honors.

"I don't think people maybe had the highest hopes for us," Greenfield said. "Last year, we didn't win the tournament, and we had our superstar Chiney [Ogwumike], and this year we don't have that person. But we really embraced that [challenge], and it was like, 'Let's just go out and do this.'"

Thompson, meanwhile, finally found paths to the basket in the second half and finished with 14 points and three steals -- including two big ones in the second half, with the second helping Stanford stretch a 57-49 lead with 3:19 to go.

Orrange had an off-game, offensively (12 points) but finished with four assists and six steals, including a pair of steal-and-layup plays that turned the tide for Stanford in a back-and-forth second half.

"I think those plays set a tone," VanDerveer said.

Like Orrange, Cal's Brittany Boyd is a tone-setter, and when she left the court for most of the first half after taking an elbow to her right cheekbone in a scramble for a rebound, the Bears were left to regroup.

Boyd came back just before halftime with four stitches, a bandage and a tough assignment to get back into the flow of the game.

"I just wanted to get back on to the court, and I was kind of mad that it happened because I kind of lost rhythm," she said.

Boyd finished with seven points, two rebounds, three assists and four steals. She was 2-of-9 from the floor while struggling to make a difference in whatever way she could.

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb boosted Boyd during timeouts. Her Teammate and best friend, Reshanda Gray, talked to her.

"She took stitches to the face in the middle of a game. I imagine she didn't feel great," Gottlieb said. "At one point in the second half, I told her, 'Hey, affect the game how you affect the game. Don't overthink it.' And I think she got us going with some tough, defensive plays."

Gray, who picked up her fourth foul early in the second half and finished with six points and three rebounds, said she just wanted to keep her team together without Boyd on the floor.

"I just told our team to do the normal stuff we do," Gray said. "Our main focus was not to fold under pressure because our point guard was out."

Boyd came back with 2:22 left in the half, and Cal took a 25-23 lead to the locker room. In retrospect, it wasn't large enough, Gottlieb said, adding, "It should have been 10."

Cal got strong play in Boyd's stead from Courtney Range (17 points), Jefflo (16 points) and Mikayla Cowling (14 points).

"I don't think anyone buckled when Boyd was out," Gottlieb said. "And that's a really good thing because we have more basketball to play."

In this tournament, Cal and Stanford made strong cases for their worthiness to host NCAA tournament games. But Gottlieb wanted to state the case, just in case.

"I think if you are watching games and you are following women's basketball and you've seen us play, I think you would think, 'Wow, this is a team that's a top-16 team in the country, and they should be hosting' -- as is Stanford," Gottlieb said. "I think we both deserve to host. I don't think we've done anything this weekend to make ourselves less worthy. We just lost the final with our best all-around player gushing blood and not playing as much as she normally would."

After all, you never know when things are going to get weird.