Matt Bradley buffaloes Colorado to lead Cal to upset win

The Bears snap their losing streak with a 71-62 victory

There are so many different ways to score on a basketball court, and so everybody has their favorite move. Maybe you fell in love with a game of a dominant big man as a kid, and so there’s nothing you love more than a sky hook or a dream shake. Maybe you watched Allen Iverson cross over somebody into an alternate dimension. Maybe you fell in love with basketball when Jason Kidd executed a pass that nobody else could even envision before it happened.

Me? I’ve always loved 3 pointers. The long arc of the shot, the anticipation of possibility when the ball leaves a hand. The idea that players can hit them so often, considering you’re hurling a 10 inch diameter ball through an 18 inch diameter basket from 22+ feet away.

And the best version of a 3 pointer? For me, it’s no contest. It’s the unassisted, isolation 3. You’re not relying on a teammate to create space, you’re not counting on your defender getting distracted. It’s just you, your ability to create space with your handle, and your ability to elevate and hit your shot over a defender you can probably guess what’s coming. Isolation 3s are bad offense for the vast majority of players and good teams should be able to create better offense . . . but that reality doesn’t detract from my love of the spectacle of an in-your-face isolation 3.

Matt Bradley, through a combination of talent and necessity, has become an isolation 3 artist. When Cal inbounded the ball with 1:02 on the clock and a 2 point lead, everybody in the building, and every Cal fan watching on TV, probably knew what was coming. Cal would clear out space, give the ball to Matt, let him run off 20 or so seconds, and let him try to win the Bears the game:

Damn straight he did.

For my money, this was Matt Bradley’s best game as a Bear. Much of this frustrating season has been consumed with worries about Bradley’s ankles and worries about Bradley’s ability to decide what to do with the ball in his hand, with teams throwing defenders at him up and down the court. It’s really weird to have a team shade a defender over to guard a wing, but that’s exactly what some teams have done this year and it’s exactly what Colorado did on Saturday night. On occasion this year Bradley has tried to force the action and either turned the ball over or missed a heavily contested shot. That’s just harsh reality when you’re expected to carry 33% of the offensive burden for a team without many other options that scare the opponent.

But against Colorado, he made the right decision with the ball every time. When there was space to drive, he attacked. When there was only room to get off a jumper, he found that floor space. When he had room to air it out from deep, he did just that. And when Colorado’s double team got a little too aggressive, he got rid of the ball, often to another teammate who was able to get off an open 3 of his own thanks to the gravity that Bradley brings to the court.

He finished with a career high 29 points, only turned the ball over once, and controlled the game from tip to buzzer. My first thought as soon as the game ended?

Boy was that fun.

And it would have been fun (though obviously less so) even if Cal hadn’t won. That was an objectively entertaining game. Colorado’s biggest lead of the game was 4 points, late in the first half. Cal immediately erased that with a 7-0 run. Cal’s biggest lead (prior to garbage time in the final seconds) was 7, and the Buffs immediately scored 5 straight to keep the game tense all the way through. There were 12 lead changes. There were big shots and weird plays. There were stretches where both offenses were rolling and stretches where the defenses controlled the game.

I realize that this isn’t necessarily much of an insight, and I’ve said something similarly banal before, but considering what has happened to this program over the last four years, I think it’s important to really savor the fun games, to remember that there are entire seasons full of games like this, that there’s a reason we call ourselves fans.

Intermission: a moment of appreciation for the refs

Who knows how differently this game goes if this is called correctly and Colorado ties the game with a minute to go rather than merely climbing within 2 points. If I were a Colorado fan with hopes of winning the conference and expectations for a high NCAA seed, I’d be pretty irate. But I’m a Cal fan and so for me this is objectively hilarious. Andre Kelly, just going in and grabbing a rebound off the glass before it hits the rim like a boss.

The other big story of the night was the continued emergence of freshman Jalen Celestine. He was the only other Bear to reach double figures, largely on the strength of three 3s inside the first eight minutes of the game.

Celestine barely played over the first half of the season. Across Cal’s first 12 games against D1 opposition, Celestine only saw the floor in half of them, and even then only for a combined 31 minutes. He had attempted all of 5 shots while averaging 3 minutes/game.

But at some point, Mark Fox started giving the freshman more rope. Over the last 10 games, Celestine has averaged 15 minutes/game. He’s not exactly a go-to-guy, with the 2nd lowest usage rating on the team, but when he does take shots they tend to go in. He’s throwing up a 54/44/83 shooting slash line that portends good things even if it’s on a small sample of shots.

I suspect that what was holding Celestine back from court time earlier in the season was defense, but there must have been growth on that end of the court as well, because Mark Fox had Celestine guarding Pac-12 POY candidate McKinley Wright at various points in the game, including crunch time. I’d have to go back and watch the game again to tell you precisely how well Celestine faired specifically against Wright, but I can tell you that Wright collectively had one of his worst games of the season, going 3-11 from the field and collecting as many turnovers (3) as assists.

It’s dangerous to get carried away over a player who has seen so little court time and still has a limited role within the offense. But this year we’re looking for players who might be able to positively contribute to the next Cal team that can compete within the conference, and Jalen Celestine has flashed enough to make you think he might be able to develop into a guy like that.

Is this game a momentary, random high point, thanks to a dominant game from the team’s best player? Or is it just one positive step in a gradual process of improvement?

We obviously won’t know the answer to that question until later. But it does lay out a path for the Bears to finish the season on a high note. Three of Cal’s final four games fall into the ‘winnable’ category, and Cal’s win over Colorado was actually tougher than any of the games left in the regular season.

More than anything, Cal was due a game like this. Like what? Well, in ten of Cal’s previous fifteen Pac-12 games, their opponents shot 39% or better from 3. And in a couple of those games where the opponent didn’t shoot lights out (coughStanfordcough) it’s because they barely attempted any 3s at all.

Colorado, for just one example, torched Cal with 12-21 shooting from behind the arc back in January. This time around? They went a miserable 3-15. They missed their final 7 deep shots, most of which could have easily swung a game that was a close affair right until the end.

So while Cal did lots of things right, they got a touch of good fortune as well. An excellent shooting team, for one game, wasn’t. Maybe Cal’s defense played some part in those numbers, but either way it was due.

After a handful of close calls over the last few weeks, the Bears finally grabbed a close one. I hope it’s the start of a trend.