Sara James had almost become an afterthought. The junior guard from the Sacramento area hadn't quite made the transition to women's college basketball. That is, until Sunday.
James, who has one career start in 66 games, revitalized Stanford's offense in a 70-56 Pac-12 victory over host Utah, setting up the first of a long series of critical tests for the fourth-ranked Cardinal.
Stanford (2-0, 13-1) travels to Berkeley to take on No. 7 California (2-0, 12-1) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in a sure-to-be sold out Haas Pavilion.
The Golden Bears, who also swept Utah and Colorado over the weekend, figure this is their best chance to knock off the Cardinal.
"It's not good enough to say we stayed with them," Layshia Clarendon said after Cal ended its preseason schedule with a win over George Washington last week. "We think we stand a good chance of winning the conference."
Stanford, meanwhile, needed James to beat Utah. She took over the role usually assumed by Toni Kokenis, who did not play as a precautionary measure after suffering an injury.
James scored a career-high 18 points to help the Cardinal survive a tough opening weekend on the road. Her previous best was a 14-point effort against USF in her freshman year.
"The highlight of this game was Sara James," Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. "She's been working really hard in practice. It was her time."
James hit 6-of-8 shots off the bench, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. She also had four assists and two steals in 31 minutes. The junior came into the game averaging just 4.1 points in 10 minutes and had a career average of 2.0.
"I keep telling people Sara is the most competitive person I ever met at Stanford," Cardinal junior Chiney Ogwumike said. "That's on the court and off the court. I've just been hoping and praying for an opportunity for her to come out and really show people that and she did. It's here to stay."
The Cardinal extended its conference winning streak to 80 heading into Tuesday's showdown. Stanford has never lost in 15 meetings with the Utes.
Ogwumike scored 20 points, although she managed just six rebounds against Utah, breaking her streak of 10 straight double-doubles. She also had a team-high five assists.
Ogwumike missed her first three shots and had eight points and one rebound by halftime. The Cardinal led by a slim 29-24 going into the intermission.
Down the stretch, though, Ogwumike played like an All-American. Her driving layup give Stanford some breathing room after Utah got within six points late and ignited a 6-0 Cardinal run, capped by James' fast-break layup.
Ogwumike also held Utah's best player, Michelle Plouffe, to 10 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
"I tried to stay with her step on step and be active on the ball," Ogwumike said. "They run the motion offense and they move in it. It's hard to follow 24-7. But I tried not to give her easy baskets apart from the first one she got in the game."
Utah shot just 38.2 percent and committed 12 turnovers but held a 15-4 edge on second-chance points, a statistic usually dominated by the likes of Ogwumike.
The Utes are the second-ranked defense in the conference and they showed it in the first half. The Cardinal hit just 3-of-13 shots in the first 6 1/2 minutes and 13 of 31 in the first half.
Stanford made it even harder on Utah, though. The Utes were shooting 25 percent at one point and 31 percent (9 of 29) at halftime.
"This is how it's going to be on the road," VanDerveer said. "We need some people who we know are really strong offensive players to make some plays for us. Chiney, every game, comes out and gives us a great 35 minutes, scoring and rebounding. But we had a great game from Sara in a big game."
Ogwumike wound up sharing the team lead in rebounds along with Mikaela Ruef, Joslyn Tinkle and Amber Orrange, who added 16 points. Tinkle had 12 points.
Stanford shot better than 51 percent in the second half and was over 46 percent for the game. The Utes also shot better in the second half (46 percent) and finished just over 38 percent.