Sister Showdown In Tempe
By Kevin Danna
One of the biggest games of the Pac-12 slate this weekend will go down on Saturday when California travels to Tempe, Ariz., to take on Arizona State. With the teams tied for second — at 6-3 — in conference play entering Thursday, the winner of Saturday's game will have a leg up on the other for a potential 2-seed in the Pacific Life Pac-12 Tournament, especially since this is the only time these two teams will meet in the regular season.
But for one Golden Bear and Sun Devil in particular, it will be more than a clash of conference titans. It will be a chance to catch up.
Those two would be Cal redshirt sophomore forward Gennifer Brandon and Arizona State senior forward Kimberly Brandon — dominant rebounders, effective scorers, and oh yeah, sisters.
The two are very close. They love watching movies together; if you hear one call the other "maggot", don't worry- there's no strife between the two. It's merely a reference to Major Payne, one of their childhood favorites.
But what about when it comes time to play one another?
"It's exciting and I know it's going to be fun since we both like to compete against each other," says Kimberly.
But don't let the older sister speak for the two of them.
"I don't want to play her. I just don't like defending her," Gennifer said. "It's weird."
Unfortunately for Gennifer, expect to see them matched up against each other quite a bit on Saturday since they are both power forwards.
"That's really something different from the first year when they were playing against each other - Gen's first year - because Kim was more at the '3' spot then, so they didn't really go head-to-head as much as I would anticipate them having to do this year," said Charmin Smith, an assistant coach at Cal. "I'm kind of curious to see how that plays out."
Much like their current positions, the two contribute to their teams in similar ways. Both Kimberly and Gennifer lead their teams in rebounding as well as one defensive category: steals for Kimberly, blocks for Gennifer. Kimberly averages 11 points per contest to lead the way for Joseph Anders' bunch; Gennifer isn't far behind at around ten points per game for Lindsay Gottlieb's group.
"I feel like I'm describing myself in a way, like we're kind of one and the same," Gennifer said, when describing her sister, who she credits with influencing her to start playing basketball. "She taught me a lot."
Kimberly has been on an absolute tear as of late, averaging almost 16 points, eight rebounds and three steals in her last five games (all of them Sun Devil triumphs), all the while shooting better than 53 percent from the field. However, Arizona State interim head coach Joseph Anders doesn't point to her stats when explaining why she is so important to the team.
"It's the way Kimberly cares for her teammates and cares for our program that really makes her a unique and really, really awesome player," Anders said. "She wants to do well and she wants others to do well as well."
Gennifer has also had some monster games this year. Try 15 points and 15 rebounds in a 63-56 win over Utah as an appetizer; 24 points and 24 boards against then-undefeated Ohio State for your entrée. She has a mid-range game that makes her a tough guard at the high post. When she sets up shop on the block, good luck getting a rebound over her.
"She puts forth the effort it takes to be a great rebounder, but she also has great leaping ability and athleticism," Smith said of Gennifer. "When you add in her leaping ability and athleticism, it is almost impossible for an opponent to keep her off the glass."
They also wear the same number, which sparked a good-natured debate between the two upon the start of their collegiate careers. Kimberly and Gennifer both sport "25" to honor their late biological father Gregory Brandon, who also wore the number. He passed away when the two sisters were children. Kimberly didn't want Gennifer to wear the number when it was time for her younger sister to go to Cal; Gennifer says she had the number first.
"I was just like, 'I'm going to get this number to symbolize Dad and for me to play hard all the time.' And [Kimberly] said, 'Oh yeah, that's a good idea!' And then all of a sudden, I see her on TV with number 25 and I was like 'What?!'" Gennifer said.
After their biological father passed away, Kimberly and Gennifer were adopted some years later by their basketball coaches Michelle and Andre Chevalier. Michelle was the head coach of their team at Chatsworth High School in Chatsworth, Calif. With coaches as adopted parents, that meant one thing in particular: a lot of one-on-one battles after practice.
Gennifer says the outcomes were 50-50; Kimberly thinks she might have won a little more than half. In either case, these grueling and highly competitive showdowns are a big reason why both players have been successful in college.
"[Our adopted parents] are so competitive and every time we would have to play each other or guard each other, they would pump both of us up so much, but it was cool because we both learned from each other and we just made each other better," Kimberly said.
Then the time would come for them to go up against each other under the lights when the Sun Devils travelled to Bear territory on January 30, 2010. While Arizona State came away victorious 63-61, it was Gennifer who made one of the most memorable plays in the game when she swatted away Kimberly's shot in the first half.
Gennifer's reaction to stopping her sister? She was sorry.
"It was funny because she kind of apologized afterwards. I was like 'get over it'. I told her, 'Gennifer, don't apologize'," Kimberly said. "If I had done the same to her, I wouldn't have apologized. I didn't take it personally; it just pumped me up even more to go out there and attack her, so it was cool."
Kimberly's Sun Devils won two of the three meetings between the teams that year - Cal knocked off Arizona State in the 2010 Pac-10 Tournament - and this Saturday will be the first meeting between the two sisters since 2010 because Gennifer redshirted last year due to a stress fracture in her shin.
When Kimberly and Gennifer square off on Saturday, it will not only be a showdown of the sisters, but a battle of two of the hottest teams in the conference. The Golden Bears have won six of their previous seven entering Thursday, the lone loss coming against the fourth-ranked Stanford Cardinal in overtime last Saturday.
"We're right there, but the fact that we didn't get the win over Stanford keeps us hungry, keeps us motivated," Smith said. "Our players know that we still need to get better; there are still things that we can improve upon."
Meanwhile, Arizona State has won five in a row to jump into a tie with Cal for second place in the conference. Defense has been the Sun Devils' calling card, as their 51.9 points per game allowed is best in the league.
"We have a great deal of confidence in the way we play our defensive game and we're beginning to finally figure out some things offensively," Anders said. "But more than anything, we are not afraid to work on the defensive end of the floor."
Arizona State-Cal has all the makings of a highly competitive affair on Saturday, but in no way will it affect how the sisters communicate with each other. They talk regularly, and that doesn't change during the days leading up to the game (except for maybe a little bit of trash-talking). They'll exchange pleasantries during warm-ups on game day as well. The impending contest did, however, change the way the two thought about how one was watching the other play.
"I watched one of [Gennifer's] games a couple of days ago and we were texting each other and she was like 'Don't be trying to scout me. I know you're going to be guarding me now.' I was like 'No, I'm not! I'm just going to be cheering for you because you're my sister,'" Kimberly said.
And, no matter the outcome, the two will be talking right after the game concludes. Their relationship can't be broken by a tough loss one way or the other.
"We don't take anything personally," Kimberly said. "I would be happy if her team won and happy for her, and vice-versa."
"Our relationship is really great," Gennifer added. "We love each other very much."