There's nothing better to wipe clean the memory of a road beat-down against your rival than another road game against one of the conference front-runners. It's like the counter-irritant theory. You don't feel the arrowhead sticking through your leg anymore because you have the red-hot dagger blade cauterizing the wound. Science!
On paper, this game had "ruh roh" written all over it. Shorthanded and coming off the surprising departure of star-in-his-own-mind frosh Gary Franklin, there were plenty of built-in excuses for the Bears to bring less than their best effort. Throw in the fact that 'Zona was ticked off and loaded for...well...Bear...coming off a "how did Lyle Lovett marry Julia Roberts" level upset at the hands of the mirror universe OSU Beavers, and this one just didn't look like it would end well.
Fortunately, Cal did its best to allay my deepest fears by allowing the Wildcats to quickly jump out to a 9-2 lead. Sigh. With the exception of one made deep jumper from Crabbe, and one ill-advised early pull-up from Crabbe, all of our early possessions ended in turnovers.
As an interesting strategic wrinkle, Monty went with a lot of zone early. Made sense considering the one on one mismatch issues we had at multiple positions. Unfortunately, Zona was still able to use their athleticism to work their way inside for several easy offensive boards and putbacks.
Although you can't fault the effort, the Bears were clearly pressing. Instead of taking their time to run the offense and trust the offense, there was an array of quick shots and forced shots which steadily helped to build Arizona's lead to 15-5.
But somehow, the Bears found a way to hang around behind Gutierrez early and then an onslaught of outside shooting from Allen Crabbe.. Seeing Allen Crabbe light it up from 3 as well as hitting fthe offensive glass with a feathery touch on the putback, I'm sure Cal fans everywhere were yelling for the young man to pour it on. Heck, I didn't even mind the heat check heave from deep with a hand in his face. I was just thrilled to see him playing with confidence.
Surprisingly, neither Kamp nor MSF could get much going in the 1st half - both missed a variety of easy shots that are normally automatic. MSF, in particular, looked like his nagging injuries were really slowing him down. Solomon and Bak gave up a few offensive boards, but both did a nice job of converting points in the paint when the guards were able to deliver them the ball. Smith struggled early, but settled down to play some solid ball. In a brief cameo, Murray looked quick with good handles, and had the play of the half with a sweet no-look delivery to Solomon for a lay-in. You almost wonder what might have been had he not missed most of camp with a serious illness.
Amazingly enough, despite the early turnovers, and lack of production from the bigs, the Bears rode a stingy zone and Crabbe's hot hand to a one point lead at the half. I obviously picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.
The lights flickered during the halftime entertainment. No doubt, Arizona Coach Sean Miller was working the cattle prods something fierce.
Knowing that Zona would come out with their pants on fire, I love the way the Bears started the 2nd half. Work it inside to Kamp who splits a double team for a bucket. Defensive stop. Then a hustle play by Smith leads to two FT's by Jorge. Defensive stop. Work it inside to MSF for a layup. Defensive stop. MSF post--up. Boom. 9 pt lead.
But, you knew the Wildcats wouldn't go away meekly at home to sip warm milk. Derrick Williams simply would not be denied and could not be stopped. He's too strong for a wing to guard, and too fast for our bigs. Go to the league already and stop tormenting us. Williams' brilliance made it a 2-pt game with 12:30 to go.
But although we had serious issues containing Williams and trouble overall preventing offensive boards, the zone continued to frustrate the Wildcats. With their outside shots not falling, they looked uneven on offense, often over-penetrating and taking forced shots or turning it over.
On the other hand, MSF/Kamp returned to their normal selves and re-asserted the normally potent Cal post game. A Kamp dunk off a nice dish from Smith and several of MSF's trademark lefty hooks steadily re-built the lead.
For a while, it looked like Williams and MSF would trade baskets like a pair of heavyweights in a street brawl. Then, MSF went to the bench with 4 fouls, and Cal Bears everywhere drew an unsteady deep breath...
...And disaster. A TO from Jorge compounded by a bad foul in transition allows the Wildcats to tie the game.
We've heard this song before. We're Cal fans. We can take it. After Crabbe creates a long jumper for Smith, the Wildcats take advantage of myopic refs to reclaim the lead at the free throw line with just minutes to play.
The whistles were surprisingly absent despite heavy contact on a double team that hammered MSF, but recovered in time to foul him out on the other end.
It's sad that such a hard-fought contest would devolve into a head-scratching whistle-fest at the end. A blatant hack on Crabbe wasn't called, but you have to love the previously meek freshman having the guts to come off a screen and take a big shot during crunch time. Equally impressive was Solomon's composure in stepping to the line to nail to huge FT's to keep the Bears close. I know we all wish Crabbe shot the ball more often in the 2nd half after getting a career-high 17 in the 1st. But the Wildcat defense was keying on him. With time, he'll learn how to move without the ball better to free himself up. And, with the Arizona defenders forced to respect Crabbe's 3-pt shooting, it opened things up for MSF and Kamp down low.
But when we needed points, Jorge's 3-pointer rimmed out and left the 'Cats up 3 with 1:20 to play...And Fogg nails a dagger 3. Sigh. Yep. There we go. Been there. Done that.
Wait, what? Kamp w/ a layup and one cuts it to 3. Monty springs a full court press for the 1st time all night and forces a turnover. And then Crabbe gets fouled on a 3. Whoa. The Bears apparently didn't get the memo that they were 13-pt dogs.
But Crabbe goes 2/3. Doh. The ensuing free throw exchange goes in Zona's favor despite Solomon coming up huge again with 2 more huge shots. Switch a make for a miss or vice-versa and this one could have gone either way. Give the 'Cats credit. Jones, Horn, and Fogg had huge makes from deep in the final minutes, while Crabbe and Jorge missed. Yes, it was that close...and I'm still not quite sure how.
Pride. Effort. Determination. Don't turn your back on these young Bears. Sure, they make mistakes. Sometimes, lots of head-scratching, hair-ripping, eye-gouging, Vegas wedding mistakes. On a nightly basis, you'll see many of our guys over-matched by players with superior size, strength, experience, or all of the above.
But, you can see Crabbe and Solomon growing with each game. You can see Smith refusing to be intimidated. You can see Jorge's intensity. You can see Kamp's steadiness. You can see MSF's toughness. To go on the road and take a good Wildcats team down to the wire is more than most sober Cal fans would have predicted. If our team plays this way the rest of the year, I would have no complaints even if the W-L column registers a big goose egg.
Hold your heads up, guys. You fought the good fight. Now let's regroup and steal a road win from the Sun Devils. Go Bears!