Cal men's basketball can't complete comeback in loss to Washington State
A career high 20 points from Jalen Celestine isn't enough in a 68-64 loss
With 24 seconds left in the game, Cal rebounded a missed free throw trailing 66-64.
That may not seem like much, but it’s the first time Cal had even a chance at a lead in the final minute of a game since they beat Arizona State at home more than a month ago.
Unfortunately, the subsequent possession didn’t go well. Joel Brown dribbled around a couple of screens at the top of the arc towards where Jordan Shepherd stood on the wing.
At this point, either Brown needed to drive the lane with Shepherd as an outlet option on the wing, or Brown needed to stay behind the arc and try to pass to a cutting Shepherd attacking towards the bucket. Unfortunately, both players headed to the same spot and brought their defenders with them, and the final result was an off-hand jumper from Brown that missed. WSU secured the rebound, and the game was over.
When you’re talking about the 10th loss of a losing streak, positives are hard to come by and inevitably forced. That said, this was by far the most entertaining game to watch in the losing streak. It featured the long awaited bounce back from Grant Anticevich and a career game from Jalen Celestine, all nearly culminating in a thrilling comeback over a team that expects to be playing in the tournament come March.
For a team predicted to finish in last place in the conference, coming off a blowout defeat, a day after learning their best player is done for the season, how much more can you reasonable ask for?
For the 2nd straight game, probably the biggest factor in Cal’s defeat was opponent 3 point shooting Washington State is a good 3 point shooting team (35% on the season) but shot 10-21 against the Bears. Otherwise, Cal’s defense was pretty on point, holding Wazzu to 34% on their 2 point shots and keeping a really good offensive rebounding team from getting many 2nd chance opportunities.
It was 3 point shooting that allowed the Cougars to build a 12 point lead with 7:24 left, a lead that was ultimately too much for Cal to overcome despite a 16-6 run that gave Cal the opportunity to tie or take the lead in the last few seconds.
And it’s that 16-6 run that I’d like to talk about, because it revealed things that this team is occasionally capable of.
One thing Cal did in those final few minutes was to extend out their defense and play a higher pressure style. Maybe Wazzu’s offensive struggles late had more to do with trying to burn clock, but the Cougars looked uncomfortable. I realize that Cal (and most teams) probably don’t have the horses to run a defense with that level of intensity for 40 minutes, but I’d like to see it a bit more often.
Offensively, Cal finally sped the game up. Over the last 10 games, how many times have you heard an announcer talk about how hard it is for Cal to flip a switch and play fast when they’re trailing late? Well, today the Bears finally flipped that switch.
And honestly, watching those last few minutes? It makes you wonder why Cal doesn’t do it more often. Think about it. Cal doesn’t have a lot of clear advantages over other teams, but among the things that stand out is quick ball handlers. Joel Brown and Jordan Shepherd are both really fast with the ball in their hands. In the final minutes, Cal was able to get some buckets when they pushed pace and started attacking before Wazzu’s defense could get comfortably set. And it makes me wonder if we’ve been wasting the unique ability that exists on Cal’s roster playing one of the slowest tempos in the country.
When a go-to player is out injured, it’s somewhat inevitable that role players step up and reach career highs as they take on higher usage previously given to the injured player. So it’s not necessarily a shock that Jalen Celestine would bust through with a 20 point game.
Having said that, Celestine has seen his role in the offense slowly growing all season long, even before Andre Kelly’s injury. Even better, he’s been taking on more minutes, ball handling, and shooting responsibilities without seeing his turnover percentages rise or his shooting percentages drop.
I don’t know if Celestine will be able to develop into a lead scorer, but if he maintains his current production - a plus 3 point shooter with enough slashing to keep a defense honest, and a rock bottom turnover rate - he’ll be a solidly valuable player to have on the roster.
And against Washington State, his shooting was what kept the Bears in the game, brought them back, and gave them a chance to win at the end.