Cal Men's Basketball Can't Complete Comeback in 60-58 Loss To Utah
Lars Thiemann leads all scorers with a career-high 16 points
Of course the Bears had one final opportunity. Cal hadn’t led since 12:10 remained in the first half, and yet Jordan Shepherd got the chance to launch a doomed heave at the buzzer that would have won the game. The visiting Utah Utes had led by as many as 11 in the second half and all hope seemed lost until Lars Thiemann made a pair of free throws to put the Bears within six with 5:32 to go in regulation.
I was sitting in Galen Center when Andre Kelly suffered his season-ending ankle injury against USC on January 29. While the Bears were never going to claim an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, Kelly’s absence has reverberated in the form of some recent close games that might have been wins if he were available. On Saturday, Thiemann and Kuany Kuany helped to fill his shoes but the ultimate result was a disappointing 60-58 defeat at Haas Pavilion. Fox doesn’t have a ton of options in terms of personnel, but I’m still baffled by the mere six minutes played by Sam Alajiki on a depleted team. Makale Foreman didn’t score and still got twice the playing time. Obinna Anyanwu and Marsalis Roberson were basically afterthoughts with two minute cameos apiece.
The Bears find themselves in the bottom quarter of the Pac-12 but actually entered the afternoon with better overall and conference records than Utah. While Mark Fox’s squad had been 4-12 in conference play, Utah was 3-13. Thiemann did his best to grab that fifth conference victory with a line of 16 points, eight rebounds, one assist and one block. Not only was that a career high, it was the best point total of anyone in the contest. He was 6-for-9 from the floor and hit all four of his attempts from the foul line. Cal got out to an 11-6 lead thanks in part to a three-point play completed by Jalen Celestine, who added 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting from the field.
Obviously Kelly’s absence leaves a gaping hole in the lineup, but it was still an impressive effort compared to Thiemann’s prior season averages of 4.0 points and 2.7 boards. Virtually his only blemish was getting whistled for goaltending on a shot late in the game by Joel Brown that remained in the cylinder. Brown’s reaction reminded me of the anguish LeBron James felt when JR Smith made a major mistake in the 2018 NBA Finals.
Kuany has felt like an underutilized player at times, but on Saturday his 19 minutes off the bench yielded 10 points on 3-for-5 shooting from the floor. He added three rebounds and two steals, and if it weren’t for his foul trouble could have put an even bigger stamp on things. At times he has demonstrated solid range, but Kuany can also score in the paint if he puts his mind to it.
Brown made an impact with five rebounds, four assists and two steals. Nevertheless, he made only one field goal, finishing with four points and three turnovers. Admittedly, it was a beautiful scoring play. One of the biggest issues for the Bears in this matchup was a lack of depth scoring. While Kuany did have 10 points in the second half, he was the only representative to score in reserve. Meanwhile, Utah led Cal 15-0 in bench points during the first half and held a 32-24 advantage after 20 minutes of play.
Despite the impressive effort from Thiemann, this game illustrated the fact that the Bears often need a key player like Grant Anticevich or Shepherd to take over in order to secure a win, especially without Kelly in the fold. Shepherd’s 33 points were a major factor in the win at Oregon. He made some exciting plays in the matinee and filled the stat sheet: 10 points, six rebounds, five assists, two swats and a steal. Nevertheless, he did most of his damage from the charity stripe and Utah held him to a 2-for-7 afternoon otherwise.
Early in the campaign, Anticevich failed to reach double figure points in only three nonconference games. By contrast, the Australian forward at one point went eight straight matchups in conference play while scoring eight points or fewer in each. He hit two triples against the Utes while piling up eight points and seven boards but shot 3-for-9 overall.
Cal did not face Marco Anthony back on December 5 in Salt Lake City, but in Berkeley he was the only Utah player to reach double figures with 13 points. It was a fairly balanced attack: Rollie Worster and Branden Carlson scored eight points each and Both Gach ended with seven. Nevertheless, the Pac-12 Networks announcers were right to predict a relatively low number of possessions and the Utes totaled only six assists. Cal managed 12 assists and shot a robust 90 percent from the charity stripe. Nevertheless, the Bears sat at 39 percent from the floor, just a shade under Utah’s figure of 40 percent.
It would have been a euphoric finish if Shepherd had drained the miracle shot as time expired. Nevertheless, that wouldn’t have erased the fact that this was not a particularly enjoyable game to watch despite its relative competitiveness and the collective efforts of both teams. Shorthanded or not, the student section and devoted alumni deserve better results. We can all probably accept that Jaylen Brown isn’t walking through that door anytime soon. Regardless, I look forward to a time when fans are able to feel optimistic prior to most games rather than wondering what factor will end up leading to the team’s demise.
Losing this one balances out the positive feelings from that shock Oregon win. An unexpected road pick-up erased by losing the one home game left on the schedule we were supposed to take.
Thanks Alex...great write-up. Much appreciated...frustrating game.
As an unabashed Alajiki fan because of his versatility on D, physicality, toughness and shooting strength, especially from 3, the 6 minutes were inexplicable...and inexcusable (barring an un-declared injury of course). Fox’s aversion to playing FR is one of his major weaknesses, imho, and shows his inability to adapt to the roster he himself has compiled. Sam should be getting 15-20 minutes per night (Obinna & now Roberson 5-6 mpg, too) because he’s a good enough ball player, especially on D, to do so. He makes things happen and is one of few guys on the roster that has a legitimate nose for the ball.
I’ve also wanted to see Kuany play down-low a bit more. While he lacks the physical strength to consistently bang with the big bodies on the block, his athleticism and length could have been a major advantage on a team that lacks a rim protector. Having KK chase SGs around the 3 point line defensively for most of the year has seemed like a major missed opportunity from Fox, and shows a lack of imagination and innovation from a guy that is a “defensive” mind.
I don’t see any way Knowlton makes a change, given the APR/AK22 injury excuse/OR road sweep...also don’t see how Fox gets this team anywhere above 10th place or near .500 in P12 play next year, given his clear limitations, stubbornness and seeming refusal to adapt. If he can somehow land a scoring PG, that’d be something, but I don’t think they even have any schollies left until someone inevitably enters the portal.
Darkest period in my lifetime for Cal hoops, and I am disappointed because I feel for the MBB program the same way Boss Tanaka felt about the Council that runs the Tokyo Underground in Kill Bill...he loved it...