Cal falls to UCLA in tense nail biter, 61-60
The Bears erase a 14 point deficit but can't hold on for the comeback win
The cardiac Bears are here to entertain you or to send you to an early grave, depending on your perspective.
This season has already seen 18 games decided by single digits, four overtime games, and three buzzer beaters. We can add another back-and-forth thriller to the ledger. Consider:
Line closer to top = UCLA more likely to win, line closer to bottom = Cal more likely to win
“Win probability graph or cardiac chart” has been a trope for some time now but even then this is an impressive example of the genre. By Kenpom’s win probability machine this game saw FOURTEEN instances within the final six minutes in which the likely winner of the game changed. That meshes with my emotional experience of the game; as soon as Cal cut UCLA’s lead to just one point at 50-49, the rest of the game was played with a two point deficit or smaller until UCLA took a 3 point lead following two made free throws with 16 seconds left. Within that span every single made basket and every single stop felt like either an exhilarating triumph or a painful gut punch.
And the final climax of the back-and-forth was a bucket by Aimaq with 1:01 left, a bucket (and foul) by Adem Bona with 0:49 left, another bucket by Aimaq with 0:36 left, and then a free throw line jumper by Dylan Andrews with 0:24 left.
Cal finally blinked, as Jaylon Tyson missed a runner and UCLA pulled down the board, hit their free throws, and held on for the win.
Of course, that’s just the end of the game. The full story has to include how we got there. For 32 minutes of game time it did not look like Cal had much of a shot to win.
UCLA jumped out to an early lead thanks to a very active start. The Bruins were pressuring Cal ball-handlers, getting into passing lanes, and making plays on the offensive glass. The result was an early 15-7 lead. The game settled down some, but UCLA eventually stretched the lead out to as much as 14 early in the 2nd half and still led by nine with eight minutes left.
I don’t recall exactly when Mark Madsen switched Cal to an exclusive zone defense look, but it happened at some point midway through the 2nd half and it murdered UCLA’s offense. With 11:47 left in the game UCLA had 47 points. With 3:00 left they had only made it to 50 and Cal had taken the lead. During that stretch UCLA was largely limited to a series of jumpers and the occasional Bona post-up, but none of UCLA’s jumpers fell and all of Bona’s post looks were well contested by Fardaws.
Cal’s comeback was really down to what they did to UCLA on defense. It’s not like Cal was scoring at will on a defense that is in the conversation for best in the conference. But when your opponent just straight up isn’t scoring you don’t need to be lights out to mount a run.
And while it was in a losing effort, the push to make this game close is what I’ve particularly grown to love about this Cal team.
Consider this team. They’re one year removed from the worst season in school history. They’ve lost two expected contributors (Devin Askew and ND Okafor) to season ending injuries. They don’t have a ton of depth; their primary back-up big is a walk-on who had four total shot attempts in two seasons in the Ivy League. And yet, this team has:
Faced a 10 point deficit to SDSU with 7 minutes left and came back to force OT.
Faced a 10 point deficit with 7 minutes left on the road against Butler and forced two OTs.
Came all the way back from a 20 point deficit against Colorado to win
Came back from 7 points down with two minutes left against Wazzu to take the lead, then absorbed a gut punch buzzer beater to send the game to OT only to win anyway.
Erased a 10 point second half deficit against Stanford
Bounced back from blowing a big 2nd half lead against USC to win in OT
Erased a 14 point lead against UCLA.
This team has plenty of limitations, but their toughness is unquestioned. They absolutely do not know when they are beaten, and they do not let a bad play or a missed shot shake their confidence when they go again. It makes them immensely satisfying to root for, win or lose.
Notes and Errata
I’m going to voice a very mild criticism of Mark Madsen from this game: I think he has to find a way to stagger his rotation so that Cal always has at least two of Jaylon Tyson, Jalen Cone, and Fardaws Aimaq on the floor at any one time.
With 14:41 left in the first half, Madsen pulled both Aimaq and Cone. They only sat for three minutes, but by the time they came back UCLA went on an 8-3 run, and Cal’s only basket came on a miracle Gus Larsen late shock clock off-balance heave. Cal turned the ball over 5 times in the six possessions Cone and Aimaq sat.
The reality is that Cal just doesn’t have enough ball handlers to sit any of their three best players - Cone and Tyson are the guys who can initiate offense, and Fardaws acts as a safety outlet with his ability to snare passes with his huge frame.
I recognize that it’s hard to find ways to give these guys rest, but maybe you can stagger their three minutes on the bench across the middle of a half. Regardless, when any two of them sit, Cal struggles to function against good defenses or presses. 5 of their 11 total turnovers came in one three minute period. Sure, it was early in the game, but Cal lost 5 points in that stretch and I think it ultimately cost them this game.
I was initially disappointed with the crowd, which was much smaller than the crowd for USC, and late-arriving. But it was an ENGAGED crowd, and for the last five minutes of the game every Cal fan was locked in and making noise on every single UCLA defensive possession. Just like the on-court program is in a rebuild, the fanbase is in a rebuild, and it’s going to take time to build back the kind of fan culture we want to support Cal basketball, but also like the on-court program, we’re on our way to doing it faster than I expected.
In the moment I was furious when the refs called Aimaq for a foul on Bona’s bucket in the final minute, and that extra free throw that Bona made was in many ways the difference - if UCLA doesn’t have that extra point, the game is tied and Cal holds for a final shot and the game goes to OT at worst. Instead, Cal is forced to take a faster shot while trailing and then UCLA hits free throws to secure the win.
But after watching replays . . . . well, I just don’t know. All of the twitter/youtube videos I’ve found are too grainy and don’t show any replays or alternative angles. There’s some indication that Aimaq may have failed to maintain verticality, but I’m not sure it was in any kind of way that actually made contact with Bona. I still maintain that the call was pretty soft for a game that was physical and that the refs let be played physical, and so I think a no-call would have been more consistent with how the game had been called to that point. But I haven’t seen a replay that gives me a high degree of confidence in my initial view from the far side of the court.
This loss puts a severe dent into the hope of getting to .500 in Pac-12 play and all but kills any chance of a .500 overall season; for Cal to achieve those goals they almost certainly had to win their remaining home games, plus steal some wins on the road. A .500 conference record now requires two home wins (far from a guarantee) plus two road wins, and as we’ve noted before Cal’s remaining road schedule is tough. It’s not over til it’s over, and as noted these Bears don’t know when they’re beaten, but the odds are slim.
Cal’s next game is in Pullman against a Washington State team that has not been beaten in regulation since January 6 . . . and against a team who has not lost a game outside of Berkeley, California since January 6. Yep, the Cougars are 8-1 in their last nine games, the only defeat coming to Cal.
My only prediction? Heart palpitations, duh.