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Arizona 107, Cal 105: This Is Why We Watch

I struggled to decide how to start this column, because there are just so many things to say about this game.  55 minutes of just unbelievably epic basketball that immediately ranks amongst the best games ever played at Haas Pavilion, or really, Cal history.  When the horn sounded and Arizona celebrated I almost felt happy for them, because the game was that good.  And as both teams slowly filed towards the locker room, the few Cal fans who didn't immediately flee Haas in pain stood and applauded the incredible effort of both sides.  It was the right reaction, though it took me a bit longer to reach it.

This game is the reason we follow sports so obsessively.  All that time talking about recruiting, breaking down match-ups, and analyzing coaching decisions - we do that because the reward is watching the players - our players - leave it all on the court.  And they certainly left it all on the court last night.  For me the defining moment was in triple overtime.  Bak Bak missed a shot, and Arizona pressed in transition.  Momo Jones couldn't hit a tough layup, but Jamelle Horne pulled down the offensive rebound.  By then, Cal's defense had recovered, so Horne passed the ball out between the circles.

At that moment, everybody in Cal's zone was set except for Brandon Smith, who was still in the key following the fast break.  Arizona could have pressed their advantage with Smith out of position.  But instead they just held the ball, looking too tired to run their offense.  Smith just slowly walked out to his position in the zone.  It's like they had a gentleman's agreement - you're too tired to guard me, but I'm too tired to push the ball.  We'll just stand for 10 seconds to rest before starting the dance again.

The atmosphere at the stadium was electric - I was disappointed with the student turnout, but every student that did show brought the noise, and big time.  With each and every lead change the roar at Haas grew louder and louder, until the arena reached delirium with the Bears up 3 and 20 seconds to go in double OT.  It was another little taste of what basketball is going to be like once Monty finishes building his program, and boy has he accelerated those plans. 

I thought yesterday's game was over about 15 different times, and I was wrong each and every time.  The first time was when Arizona went on a 9-0 run to take a 44-35 lead just prior to halftime.  Arizona was absolutely shredding Cal's 2-3 zone, mostly because the Wildcats are unique in their ability to play 5 men who can shoot a 3 pointer.  Cal's zone seemed to be overreacting to the threat of Derrick Williams down low, and the result was that Arizona constantly had men wide open on either wing to nail 3 pointers or use the space to penetrate and cause havoc.  Granted, it's silly to think a game is over prior to halftime, but Arizona's offensive domination seemed so thorough that it was hard to imagine the Bears keeping up.

The second time I thought the Bears lost was when Jorge made an ill-advised flop to try to draw a charge which eventually led to another wide open 3, pushing Arizona's lead to 8 with 12 to play.  Jorge, of course, immediately atoned with a 3 of his own and the comeback was on.  But how did the Bears slow down Arizona enough to come back?  I think the answer is somewhat twofold.  Cal absolutely tightened up their zone rotations as the 2nd half went along, and Arizona usually had a little less space and time to shoot.  But the Wildcats seemed to play rather passively and lacked the same ball movement and pace that defined their dynamic play in the first half - it's like they went into basketball's version of the prevent game plan.  That and a little regression to the mean from behind the arc allowed Cal to claw back into the game.

Rather than rehash some of the individual events that led to the final score that Avi has already discussed (DAMN YOU MOMO JONES!), let's just talk about the incredible performances of a few Bears:

Harper Kamp authored his virtuoso performance as a Bear.  To start off with, he played 55 minutes.  That's just stunning in so many ways.  (Note:  In case anybody is wondering why Monty is sticking with the zone?  There's no way Harper plays 55 minutes in a man-to-man defense.  He'd have fouled out long earlier.)  And he somehow looked like the freshest Bear at times in overtime, skying for a couple of rebounds and still carrying the scoring burden.  He's playing like a guy who sat around for a year and missed the joys of playing basketball.  Nobody on Arizona could guard him, and he was the main reason 3 Wildcat bigs fouled out.  It's got to be the best performance by a Cal big man since Leon Powe in the Pac-10 tournament against Oregon - only one of the more legendary performances in Cal basketball history.

Jorge Gutierrez played perhaps his best offensive game of the year and missed overtime because of a stupid charge call.  I still haven't seen a replay, but I still hate that call so, so much.  As it is I'm of the opinion that the benefit of the doubt should go to the attacking player.  Especially on a fast break, and especially when that player has four fouls.  What a horrible way to end a night.  (Note:  I have no idea if the refs screwed one team or the other - I'm sure there are AZ fans that hate some of the Derrick Williams fouls.  Just have to say my peace on this one)  That Cal survived for as long as they did without him on the court is a minor miracle.  And if this game ended in a more normal way, the most memorable play of the game might have been Jorge's steal and slam dunk - a rarity for our champion from Chihuahua.  Instead it's just a footnote in legendary game.

Allen Crabbe was already awesome - and that was before he expanded his offensive repertoire and developed a flair for clutch dramatics.  Crabbe's points so far have mostly come from spot-up 3's and jumpers off of screens and curls.  Today, he took the ball into the paint, and he did it with confidence.  This wasn't some pure shooter taking the occasional open look - this was a scorer taking the initiative and attacking and attempting tough shots because there wasn't anybody else to do it.  He delivered with 27 points and basket after basket that kept the Bears alive.

Brandon Smith has received some flack, and I won't hear it.  Brandon Smith ran this offense for the majority of the game, and he ran it without Jorge Gutierrez for all of overtime.  And Cal wasn't competitive in this game because of their defense - they almost beat the Pac-10 leaders because their offense fought with them punch for punch.  Smith ended the game with 11 assists to just 2 turnovers - hell, he stole the ball from Arizona more often than he coughed it up.  He hit a huge 3 that kept the Bears close in the 3rd overtime and even added 8 rebounds for good measure.  The Bears do not stay close enough to win this game without Brandon Smith.

So here's my question:  are you going to be that guy spouting cliches like 'there's no such thing as a moral defeat" and bemoaning every mistake a Cal player made that, if reversed, might have resulted in victory?  Because man, that's a really horrible attitude to take about this game.  Last night's game was about two teams combining to author a masterpiece of athletic competition, and it really sucks that we're conditioned to only enjoy and appreciate the wins.  For my part, I'm just happy they let me watch.

We'll start looking ahead to Washington and Washington St. later.  It's 2:20 a.m. and I'm exhausted, and yet I feel like I only scratched the surface on everything you could write about yesterday's insanity.  What a game.