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Cal Basketball Shock Win: Bears Smash Ducks in Eugene
Cal earns their first Pac-12 road sweep in SIX YEARS
This certainly isn’t the first ‘nobody saw this coming’ win during the last five seasons of Cal men’s basketball.
In 2019, Cal was riding a 16 game losing streak when they hosted the NCAA tournament bound Washington Huskies. They then blitzed the UW zone for a shock 76-73 win.
In 2020, Cal hosted 21-7 Colorado. The Buffs were considered in great shape to make the tournament, but Matt Bradley went off for 26 points and Cal cruised to a 14 point win.
In 2021, Cal brought a 7 game losing streak into a home game against eventual NCAA 5 seed Colorado. And again, Matt Bradley went off for 29 points in a 71-62 win in Berkeley.
As rough as Pac-12 life has been for Cal over the last 5 years, you can pretty reliably count on the Bears producing one out-of-nowhere win a year. What marks this game as different is that for the first time, Cal’s shock win came on the road. Prior to Wednesday night, Cal hadn’t won a game away from Haas Pavilion since last year’s Pac-12 tournament, and Cal has collected a total of 7 true road wins over the last five years, mostly tight affairs, mostly against bad teams.
So a dominant, decisive road win over a team with NCAA tournament aspirations? That’s something Cal fans haven’t experienced in quite some time . . . though thanks to this game specifically, Oregon may well not end up making the NCAA tournament this year. Sucks for them.
How did Cal do it? The Bears fell behind early, 12-5 . . . and went on a shocking 24-0 run, then more or less maintained that big lead the rest of the way. That run came over the course of 14 possessions that saw Oregon miss six different 3 pointers while Cal hit six different 2 point jumpers plus a couple 3s of their own.
I don’t want to suggest that this game was solely about Cal having a hot shooting game and Oregon being ice cold. One got the sense that Oregon expected an easy win and couldn’t immediately match the level of energy the Bears brought into the contest. However, I DO want to suggest that Cal was owed a game with a little bit of good variance, after UW and WSU shot the doors off from deep against the Bears.
And once Cal managed to build their 17 point lead, they did a brilliant job of maintaining it despite Oregon throwing the kitchen sink at them. The lead never grew beyond 19 or below 11, and Cal was generally very composed against Oregon’s full court pressure, traps, and attempts to speed the game up. For the first time this season, Cal’s slow down offense was a clear and obvious benefit as the Bears could run clock while still hitting enough shots to keep the desperate Ducks at bay.
Jordan Shepherd was the obvious star. His final point total (33!!!) was a little bit inflated by hitting 10 free throws in the final five minutes of the game as a panicking Oregon started fouling indiscriminately, but he was still the engine that drove Cal’s offense early, and he provided the defining play of the game when he split two defenders and sent Cal into the half like THIS:
Which naturally led his teammates to greet him in the locker room like THIS:
Say what you will about the Bears, but they bring effort and energy as well as anybody else in the conference.
24 minutes played, 2-4 shooting, 3 turnovers, and 5 defensive rebounds does not read like a particularly notable stat line. So maybe I’m letting the good feelings of a shocking upset win carry me away, but I felt like this was in some ways a breakout game for Lars Thiemann.
What I was trying to figure out was if Oregon’s disastrous first half on offense was just random bad shooting, or something that Cal was specifically doing. And the only thing that stood out to me was the defensive effort from Lars.
He didn’t block a shot, he didn’t have a particularly massive game rebounding. But he played 18 of 20 minutes in the first half, and spent that half either discouraging or altering shots around the basket. Lars played the first 5:31 of the 2nd half, and during that stretch Oregon only scored 3 points, all from the free throw line.
And then Lars picked up his 4th foul and sat for the rest of the game. And Oregon, after scoring 26 points up to that point, then scored 48 points the rest of the way. Luckily Cal hit enough shots to hold the Ducks off, but there were a couple moments where it felt like the lead couldn’t be taken for granted.
Lars doesn’t need to be a major scoring threat - the occasional finish off a penetration dish or offensive rebound put back is enough. What he DOES need to be is a 7 foot rim protector who can control the interior without fouling. It’s not really something he’s been able to do so far in his Cal career, but the annals of college basketball are full of really tall dudes who took a long time to figure it out, but then became really valuable players late in their career when they did.
One game is no guarantee of future games, but these are the kinds of little flashes you can hold onto as hope for next year.
I was not counting this game as a win; but now that it’s added to the ledger, Cal can now enjoy four straight very winnable games with a chance to finish as high as 9th in the conference. Modest goals, certainly, but that would constitute Cal’s best conference finish since Before Wyking (BW). Heck, if you’re inclined to trust Our Computer Overlords, Cal is actually a slight favorite in three of their next four games:
I’ll leave it up to you (and, I suppose, Cal’s administration) to decide how much difference it would make if Cal won a series of home games against low end conference opponents, but winning is more fun than losing. May as well ride the good feelings as long as we can.