In one sense, I'm actually kind of pleased with how the game went. The Bears were completely outclassed against Wisconsin last week, and they were similarly outclassed against UNLV last year. I was worried that the Rebels would give Cal similar fits this year. Instead, I walked away feeling that the Bears outplayed UNLV, and that's a positive development. There are those that argue that process is more important that results prior to conference play.
But the Bears lost. And we're past the point where there's any real satisfaction to be taken from hypothetical moral victories. UNLV is an excellent team and they are likely to win the Mountain West. But they're probably not as good as Creighton, which means that the Bears are staring at an 0-3 record against the meat of the non-conference schedule. A good process doesn't equal a good tournament resume, and for the 4th year in a row Cal's tournament resume lags behind our perception of what the Bears could be. Frustrating.
In some sense I can't help but feel that the Bears were really unlucky*. Let's count the things that frustrated me:
1) Allen Crabbe only played 24 minutes, mostly because of one really awful foul call. Allen Crabbe is never in foul trouble. Did you know that he has never fouled out of a game as a Bear? In fact, he's only been called for 4 fouls in a game 3 times. He's been one of the best players in the country at avoiding whistles, and that's really important because for obvious reasons Cal depends on him badly. He's the focal point of the offense and he takes pressure off his teammates. He's a key defensive rebounder. He's Cal's best player and he needs to be on the floor. When he committed the 'flagrant foul,' the game was tied. While he sat UNLV went on a 17-10 run. When he came back, so did the Bears. If that foul isn't called, Cal wins. Frustrating.
2) 15-28 from the line. It's a little off to call bad free throw shooting 'bad luck.' After all, it was the Bears that missed the shots. I'd call it unfortunate timing. Nobody will mistake Robert Thurman or Richard Solomon for great free throw shooters, but 0-7 combined isn't an accurate representation of their abilities either. Cal will have good and bad free throw games. They had a bad one at the wrong time. If they have a normal night from the line, Cal wins. Frustrating.
3) If UNLV's last shot hit the rim, Cal wins. It's Cal's job to get the ball, but still. UNLV had two guys down low. One was right under the basket in perfect position to catch an airball. The other was being smothered by Richard Solomon. If that hits rim, Cal wins. Frustrating.
What frustrates me most of all? Cal did all kinds of things wrong in the 1st half. The defense wasn't very good, there were some really awful turnovers, the rebounding was atrocious . . . really, if Cal hadn't shot the lights out they would've been down by more than just seven points.
I don't know what Monty did, but it was a different team that came out in the second half. The turnovers got cut in half. At one point the Rebels went 15 minutes without an offensive rebound. The defense was brilliant, the offense was crisp. It was probably Cal's best half of basketball on the season. UNLV hit some crazy shots in the second half. Contested 3s, deep fall-away jumpers, the type of shots that you want them to take. Credit the Rebels for hitting those shots, because they've got some big time players. Still, Cal outscored UNLV by six in the second half and it could have been much more. It wasn't enough.
I'm frustrated that Cal wasted a brilliant half of offense from Richard Solomon. I'm frustrated that a brilliant all-around effort from Tyrone Wallace wasn't enough. I'm frustrated that an electric atmosphere at Haas ended in defeat.
There were plenty of encouraging signs in this game, but for now it's hard to get past the pain of that final play and what a win could've meant for this team come March. With every missed opportunity the margin of error over the rest of the season shrinks. Time to regroup, because the road gets even tougher next week.
*Homer alert: Cal got really lucky when Mike Moser left with a very painful looking dislocated elbow. We wish him a speedy recover and note that if Moser had been on the court with Anthony Bennett this game might not have been close, because we don't have one player to guard a crazy athletic big man, let alone two.