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A Tough Loss To Stomach

I'm sure just about every serious sports fan has had that moment where, with their team getting beat and a critical loss seemingly inevitable, he or she just turns the game off and walks away.  Maybe you just change the channel, perhaps watch some light-hearted Seinfeld reruns.    Maybe you actually get up off the couch and go and do something else; pour yourself a drink, go outside for a walk, spend some time with your family, whatever.  Last night, after Darren Collison hit an "and-one" free throw to cap a 13-0 Bruins run and put UCLA up by nine, I did just that -- I turned the game off and walked away.  The difference was, in a personal first for me, I was actually attending the game.

This isn't supposed to happen to me.  CBKWit is the one who's supposed to get too into to these games, to take these losses too personally.  Sure, I've had some rough moments as a Cal fan, some real 'punch in the gut' games (@Tennessee '06, @USC '06, Oregon State '07, @UCLA '07 all come to mind), but I've always been able to sit in the stands and take it.  I've been able to distance myself emotionally from the sporting contest down on the field, tell myself it's only a game, and continue to cheer for our Bears while becoming accepting of the devastating loss that I was currently witnessing.  In football, you really can go through the five stages of grief within the span of one pathetic, hope-sapping three-and-out, but basketball moves too fast for that, with every possession harboring the glimmering hope of a big-time three-pointer, the shot that begins the miracle comeback barrage.

Saturday night, though, I just couldn't take it.  Part of that may have had to do with me not having a seat to begin with.  My seat was way up in section 18, near the corner, and I had gone down to visit a friend in the opposite corner during halftime.  There were no seats available there, however (the sold-out crowd made moving around nearly impossible), so I decided to watch the second half from a nearby stairwell, as it actually had a much better view than my actual seat.  So when Collison hit the free throw to put UCLA up 9, I just couldn't take it anymore, and I literally walked away.

This is not a normal reaction.  It is not rational, and it is not healthy.  I told myself all this at the time, but it didn't help that helpless, queasy feeling in my gut, and it didn't calm my nerves one bit.  Being a sports fan is like that, I suppose.  Sometimes, you'll keep up hope long past when any objective observer would say your team has a chance, and sometimes, like Saturday night, you'll see that the Bears are down by 9 with 6 to play and you'll just know that it's over, despite there being plenty of time for the for the Bears to mount a reasonable comeback.  It just felt like that sort of game, a back-and-forth battle where runs were hard to come by, and the first team to put some real distance between them and their opponent was going to win.

Now, I didn't actually leave the building when I walked out; I'm too much of a fan for that.  Instead, I just tried to calm myself down, put some emotional distance between me and a basketball contest involving a group of college students, none of whom I knew personally or had ever even met.  I went to get myself a drink of water.  I went out on the landing overlooking Evans Diamond to get myself some air.  I paced back and forth, nervously listening for the roar of the crowd that would let me know that it was OK to look again.  I must've circled the second-floor hallway of Haas Pavilion at least 3 or 4 times, anxiously looking for score updates every time I passed a stairwell.  In short, I was a wreck.

It's interesting how you can follow a basketball game just by listening to the crowd.  The largest cheers were reserved for when the Bears scored, with an even higher pitch and an exclamation by announcer Eddie Kleinhans if the bucket was a three.  A slightly less rowdy cheer followed a defensive stop, and you can certainly tell when the Bears are on defense by the ambient crowd noise from the students all going "Ooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" at the same time.  Of course, there was a sizeable UCLA contingent on hand, so you could hear cheers mixed with groans every time the Bears failed to score, and louder cheers (with more groans) whenever UCLA scored.  I found myself following the game in the hallway in this ridiculous, detached manner, trying to keep track of the scoring margin based on the sum of all of the crowd noises I had heard up to that point.

After the game, I headed straight home.  I didn't check the comments on CGB, or my email, or even turn on my computer to read an AP recap of the game.  I took a shower, watched the new Futurama movie, and basically ignored basketball as much as I could.  Usually, I've been pretty good about getting up a postgame reaction on the blog pretty quickly, win or lose (and especially if the game was a triple-overtime thriller).  After Saturday night's loss to UCLA?  I couldn't even begin to think about writing something until the next morning.  It was a defense mechanism, really; if I don't care about the game any more, I can't feel any pain, right?

Still, what still bothered me so much about this game was *how much* I cared in the first place.  It seems really odd, when you think about it.  Yeah, it was a competitive game against a longtime rival that had been dominating the West Coast recently, going to the last 3 Final Fours.  However, UW had already pretty much wrapped up the conference title earlier that day, and Cal and UCLA were only fighting for a slim chance at a possible tie for first.  Really, for Cal to share the Pac-10 title, they would've needed to first beat UCLA, then sweep through both Arizona and Arizona State in the desert next week AND hope that Washington lost to Washington State; "unlikely" only begins to describe that scenario.  And win or lose, Cal is pretty much assured of a bid to the NCAA tournament, so there's not really any do-or-die pressure.

So if the Bears were likely playing only for pride and tournament seeding, what got me so worked up?  I blame ESPN GameDay.  The national exposure certainly heightens the importance of any game, and attending the early morning taping got me even more ramped up.  Tell you what:  you try getting up at 5am, going to a Cal rally on 4 hours sleep and chanting Cal spirit yells for three hours (on cue, no less!), with the occasional "Beat LA" chant worked in for good measure, and see if you're not unreasonably hyped up after that.  By the time 6pm rolled around, and the Bears tipped off in front of a riled-up sellout crowd at Haas Pavilion, it seemed to me that the very success or failure of the entire season rested on the outcome of this one particular contest.  Sounds crazy, but there it is.  Like I said, this is not healthy.

In any case, I've now written 1250 words and have yet to actually talk about the game.  But do I need to?  If you weren't there too, most of the rest of you saw it on ESPN.  The Bears were good, but were still plagued by some of the same turnover problems that cost them their first matchup in Pauley.  There were some questionable refereeing calls, but there always are, and I don't think more calls went one way or the other.  You could blame the loss on the intentional foul call on Theo Robertson, though I would say the Bears' inability to get out on the perimeter and contest Bruin shooters is equally culpable.  However, I do have three things to note about the game that I've never seen before:

• First, in case you didn't notice, Jerome Randle, Patrick Christopher, and Darren Collison all missed free throws within the first 15 minutes of the games.  Remember, these are three guys have made a combined 88% of their free throws this year -- Collison himself has only missed 8 all year.  What are the odds these guys all go 1-2 from the line?  Pretty unlikely.

• Secondly, I've been watching Cal Basketball for nearly a decade now, and I can't say that I've ever seen a three-second lane violation called.  Of course I know that it happens, and I know why it's a rule, but I've honestly never seen it happen.

• However, three-second violations are mundane and commonplace compared to the Bruins' seven-point possession, which I've honestly never even heard of before.  If you had asked me yesterday afternoon how many points one team could possibly get on a single possession, I might have guessed six (get fouled as you make a three, miss the and-one free throw, grab the rebound and make another three), but maybe not.  I don't dispute that it was the correct call according to the rulebook, and it's only a seven-point possession because the Bears' defense lapsed after the intentional foul and let Michael Roll get a wide-open look at a three, but man, that one call ended up being especially punitive -- essentially a five-point foul.  All I can do is shake my head, and Monty essentially said the same thing after the game:

"The reality is that we should have been up a bunch in the first half," Montgomery said. "When they get what turns out to be a seven-point play, it just really takes the wind out of your sails. ... I'm not saying it was the wrong call. It's just hard to take."

Hard to take?  Boy, I'll say...