For 10 minutes on Thursday night, Connor Vanover and the Cal basketball team looked almost invincible.
Well, as invincible as a team that lost 16 games in a row this season can look.
Vanover, the 7-foot-3 freshman, made four 3-points shots, had 16 points and the Bears forged leads of 19-2 and 24-5 against Stanford at Maples Pavilion.
“I made my first shot and I just kept shooting from there,” Vanover said. “It feels good. I feel like I could shoot it from anywhere.”
Cal came back down to earth, but Vanover never did.
He finished with a career highs of 24 points, six blocked shots and five 3-pointers as the Bears ran their win streak to three games with a 64-59 victory over the Cardinal in front of 3,822 fans in the Pac-12 regular-season finale for both teams.
Incredibly, Cal has beaten Stanford at Maples two years in a row for the first time since the 1984-85 and '85-86 seasons.
And when the Cardinal whittled what was once a 21-point margin down to 58-55, Vanover scored off a pass from Justice Sueing and converted the free throw to push the margin back to six points with 56.7 seconds left.
“We knew he could shoot it,” Stanford senior center Josh Sharma said. “He definitely hit some big shots.”
The Bears (8-22, 3-15) will be the No. 12 seed for next week’s Pac-12 tournament but must wait for this weekend to learn their opponent for Wednesday’s 2:30 p.m. first-round game.
Point guard Paris Austin said the Bears will take a lot of confidence to Las Vegas. “They’ve got to be on the lookout for us,” he said.
Stanford (15-15, 8-10) aided in the Bears’ cause by missing its first 21 (yes, 21!) shots from the 3-point arc and turning the ball over 15 times.
But Cal played aggressively and with great confidence. Austin scored 15 points, freshman Matt Bradley added 14 points and seven rebounds before fouling out in the final 2 minutes and Sueing contributed nine points, 10 rebounds and four assists.
Vanover's fifth 3-pointer barely 3 minutes into the second half, Cal led 45-24, its largest lead of the season . . . by seven points.
“Connor played really well tonight. He got off to a great start and it got all us going,” Austin said. “We were super-excited and we kept feeding him the ball. The momentum just continued throughout the game.”
Vanover played a career-high 32 minutes, shot 9 for 12 from the field and also had five rebounds. The only 3-pointer he missed came when he fired up a quick shot in an attempt to beat the expiring shot.
A week after scoring what was a career-best 18 points in the Bears’ upset of then-No. 25 Washington that halted Cal’s 16-game losing streak, Vanover scored in double digits for the seventh time in 10 games.
As good as he was offensively, it was Vanover’s defensive influence on the game that most pleased coach Wyking Jones.
“Connor Vanover, obviously, had an unbelievable shooting night,” Jones said. “What’s most impressive to me on the stat sheet is he had six blocks. He protected the middle for us.”
“I like defense even a little more than offense,” Vanover said.
Stanford closed the margin to 54-45 when Marcus Sheffield (finally) made a 3-pointer with exactly 4 minutes left.
Bradley countered with a layup in traffic, then made two free trows, pushing the Bears’ lead to 58-45.
Now, suddenly, Stanford couldn’t miss from deep. KZ Okpala made a 3-pointer, then Cormac Ryan hit one and the Bears’ lead was down to 58-51 with 2:38 left.
Stanford kept coming, but finally ran out of gas and ran out of time.
Cal missed five of eight free throws in the final 43 seconds, but two by Grant Anticevich and one by Sueing iced the win.