For a team built upon the tenuous foundation of youth, new starters, and a short rotation, it is somewhat remarkable that this season has featured very few losses where our Bears were flat-out beaten. Unfortunately, yesterday's Pac-10 quarterfinal was a proverbial trip to the woodshed - and we weren't the ones grinning afterwards. It's one thing to have your bubble burst. This was the Big Dance equivalent of encasing a pack of Trident in a cement coffin, filling it with nitroglycerin, sealing it with C4, and then wiping the whole thing off the face of the earth with a fuel-air explosive. Yes, that's right. Please pack your dancing shoes and go. Sigh.
I suppose we shouldn't be overly surprised. After all, the Trojans were the only team to make Derrick Williams look like a mere mortal and one of the few able to slow down Isaiah Thomas. We knew going in that they had serious chops on defense. Coach O'Neil's gameplan of putting their stopper, Simmons, on Jorge was actually rather brilliant; Crabbe might be a great scorer, but Gut is the straw that stirs our drink. Unfortunately, yesterday our beverage of choice was a milkshake, and 'sc decided that it was their day to drink it up.
Cal tugged on our heartstrings from the beginning by playing stifling man to man defense and scratching out to a 16-8 lead. Throw in early foul trouble on Vucevic and it almost started to look like the chips were coming up blue and gold. But missed opportunities highlighted by sloppy turnovers and uncharacteristically poor shooting from our veterans let the Trojans back in the game. Unfortunately, our collective lack of experience with tournament play showed. The guys were definitely pressing. Faced with 'sc's tough defense, we settled for too many early, contested shots and spent more time going one on one instead of relying on cuts and ball movement. For the first time in several games, we seemed out of sync and found ourselves missing shots that we'd normally make. Although our bigs held their own defensively, we really had trouble with their length offensively and stopped trying to work the ball inside out after getting blocked several times early. Forced to go small with Vucevic sitting, they stole a page from our playbook (#1: Run into someone) and started to creating contact off their drive and dish game. Our guards really struggled to keep Jones and Fontan out of the lane, and our bigs suffered from the ensuing defensive scrambles. Kamp with 2 fouls. Uh oh. MSF with two fouls. Uh oh. Solomon with two fouls. That's bad. Jorge with 3 fouls. Que horible! Estamos screwed! (We're screwed.) Having missed our chance to put our foot on their necks, the Trojans rallied and exploited our foul-plagued defense to go on a 22-6 run. Their streaky shooters fought through their early ice and ended up going 6-12 from deep. You could feel the momentum shift as they continued to gain confidence while all our guys could do is flounder. The effort was there, but skillful and elegant basketball...it was not. The evil empire led 35-27 at the half.
Any hopes that Monty's patented halftime adjustments would work their magic vanished quickly when the Trojans shook off another sluggish start to blow the gates off this one with a decisive run. Fueled by Bear turnovers, dribble penetration, and 3-balls, they quickly ran the lead to 18 points. Crabbe and Solomon tried to answer, but it wasn't enough. Frenetic effort transitioned into desperation mode. The wheels came off as the Bears continued to turn it over, play one on one, and miss early shots. Fully confident and smelling blood, the Trojans tormented us for the remainder of the game by seemingly getting any shot they wanted, whenever and wherever they wanted. To their credit, the guys battled to the end, but could never get enough stops to put together a serious run.
I'm not going to put this one on our point guard play. The turnovers and on the ball defense were a concern - but our veterans didn't step up to provide a steadying influence. Instead, they were just as culpable with their shot selection and decision-making. I'm not going to put this one on the referees. When the game was in the balance, we were the ones forcing the action, hacking jump-shooters, and reaching at guys driving by us. I'm not going to put this one on Monty. He didn't suddenly forget how to coach. Why didn't we play more/less man? Why didn't we play more/less zone? Why didn't we make any adjustments? We did. They just didn't work as well as we hoped. Give some credit to 'sc - they played a tough game. Their relentless defense was the difference in this one. (It is still perfectly acceptable, however, to detest their fans, administration, coaches, one-song band, and especially their lying, weaselly, cowardly, event management staff.) Having disguised our weaknesses with smoke and mirrors all year, we were exposed in this game for our over-reliance on a few key players. You wouldn't expect all three of our veterans to struggle in the same game, but you would expect that this would be the result. One bad game doesn't suddenly change a team, tarnish players, or taint a season. No matter how you look at it, this was one hell of a ride. In some ways, I've enjoyed watching this group of guys grind, hustle, and grow together as much or more than last year's Pac-10 champions. Thanks, Coach. Thanks, guys. Wear the Cal logo with pride and don't you dare hang your heads. Now get out there and make some noise in the NIT. Go Bears!