Late Cal comeback against Colorado falls short

The Cal men's basketball season draws to a close in Las Vegas, 61-58

I don’t know how many times I had given up on Cal’s chances to win the game. When Evan Battey converted a 3 point play to put Colorado up 13 with 8:55 left? When Matt Bradley fouled out on a dubious call with 3:28 left? When Battey scored to put Colorado up 9 with 1:05 left? Yes, yes, and yes.

And yet somehow there I was, shouting like a dummy as Cal got a stop and raced up the floor. I held my breath as Makale Foreman’s desperation 3 that would have sent the game to overtime rattled out. Sports, man - why does it do this to us?

When the Buffs seemed to pull away midway through the 2nd half, this column was mostly going to talk about how Cal couldn’t score. The Buffs, primarily through the dogged defense of Eli Parquet, became the first team to truly shut down Matt Bradley. Cal’s star didn’t score a point until the 11:22 mark of the 2nd half, and though a late flurry got him to 10 points, it was a rough outing all the way around. And as is often the case, nobody else really got going to pick up Bradley, and so Cal’s offense suffered.

Cal was sitting on 30 points when Bradley got his first points after getting fouled on a missed 3 pointer. From that point forward the Bears finally started scoring, nearly doubling their output from the first 29 minutes of the game by scoring 28 points over the final 11. Alas, Colorado did just enough scoring of their own to hold Cal at arm’s length. Season over.

On offense, the story of the game was Cal’s simple inability to create or find open shots. Cal had early success finding openings for 3 pointers, but Colorado extended their ball pressure out further and further and Cal’s offense wilted. It says something about the extent to which Colorado focused on denying and closing out on Cal’s 3 point shots that the Bears were fouled three times on missed 3s, two of which pretty directly contributed to Cal’s near comeback. Colorado’s incessant ball pressure didn’t just deny Cal easy 3 point attempts - it also directly fed into many of Cal’s 14 turnovers, as harried ball handlers struggled to find outlets. Until that late, foul-and-circus-shot-fueled flurry, Cal was set to put up their worst offensive efficiency of the season.

Defensively, Cal was faced with an impossible choice: foul, or let Colorado get to the bucket. Colorado’s a good passing team with generally better athletes, so Cal’s defenders spent much of the game trying to recover. Cal ended up committing 23 fouls and Colorado attempted 23 free throws. And when you're facing the team that might set the NCAA record for best team free throw shooting percentage ever, you’re not going to get away with sending your opponent to the line.

Colorado never really got going from the field, shooting a mediocre 45% on their 2s and 21% on their 3s. But that was in part due to a Cal defense that was hell bent on denying uncontested buckets. That came at a price - not just the free throws, but also losing Bradley and Joel Brown when both fouled out.

This was a bizarre game, but maybe not particularly for anything happening on the court. Sure, Matt Bradley scoring zero points for 3/4 of the game is weird. Sure, McKinley Wright shooting 4-14 with only 3 assists is weird.

But what set this game apart was the timing and the setting. Three different overtime sessions earlier in the evening pushed tip time all the way back to 9:30 pacific/10:30 mountain. Meanwhile, Bill Walton was on something like hour nine of color duties, and his utterances were even more weird and nonsensical than usual. Late in the game I think he was attempting to mime the call of a peregrine falcon, in which case it would have been the 4th different animal sound of the broadcast. Even the normally stoic Dave Pasch was clearly fatigued, playing into Bill’s weirdness more than usual.

When Jalen Celestine is getting hounded in the corner before throwing up a prayer 3 that somehow swishes through the net as Bill Walton yells ‘In MY face!’ in confused delight, all you can do is shake your head and try to decide if your eyes and ears are being honest with you.

It was weird, confusing, confounding, and far more entertaining than a sloppy game had any right to be.

And so the season ends. I don’t think Cal’s solid showing in Vegas appreciably changes anything about how this season will be viewed long term, or the short term prospects of the program. But these last two games were something that has been far to rare of late: fun.

There will be time for program assessment and long term speculation later. For now, it’s a good time for us fans to take a step back in appreciation, like we did after the football season.

This was a trying season in ways both usual an unusual. A losing season is always tough. There’s nothing fun about emergency late night appendectomies, twisting two different ankles, or apparently bruising a lung. And while Cal MBB made it through the regular season without any COVID-related disruption to the schedule, I have no doubt that the procedures put in place to try to keep everybody safe were wearying, to say nothing of the challenges of studying and practicing in isolation from everybody but those within the basketball program.

My post-season recaps are going to be focusing on the question of what the Cal athletics department wants their sports, MBB in particular, to be. But for the players themselves, I hope that they found something of value out of the season, that their Cal experience this year was worth it. I know I appreciated having something to look forward to twice a week.

Thanks, Bears.