I struggle to come up with the words to describe Wednesday night's game, so let's start with the facts.
Cal overcame a persistent 2nd half deficit to beat Montana in double overtime, despite Montana three times attempting shots that likely would have won the game as time expired. Tyrone Wallace, David Kravish and Jordan Mathews did most of the heavy lifting, with Wallace finishing with a double double.
But oh what a ride to get to the final score. The game was ugly in ways both objective and subjective, and a neutral observer might well conclude that neither team particularly deserved to win. That's what you get when two teams combine to shoot 24-44 from the line and turn the ball over 31 times.
The Bears can feel relieved that they escaped with a win. But make no mistake about it: Montana is not a team Cal should have struggled with. The Grizzlies were a mediocre Big Sky team last year, and the are currently operating without the two best players from last year's team while they break in a new head coach in Travis DeCuire. Vegas had Cal favored anywhere from 14 to 12.5, and Kenpom had the same. And yet the Bears were very, very lucky to escape with the win.
The Bears didn't exactly come out on fire, but compared to the rest of the game, the first half was some pretty decent basketball. Cal shot well, Montana generally didn't, and the half ended with the Bears up six. The lead would expand to eight early in the 2nd half, before Montana went on a 19-3 run that turned a routine win into a dogfight that ended up lasting 50 minutes.
Cal gradually clawed their way back into the game, mostly by holding Montana to just three points over the final five minutes of regulation. The Grizzlies did their part by missing nine second half free throws. Even then, it required Jordan Mathews to hit a game-tying three pointer from the corner with 17 seconds left just to force overtime.
Cal fans thought it was nutty that this game, at home, was going to overtime, but things just kept getting weirder. Cal had 8 possessions in the first overtime period. Four ended in turnovers. Two ended in badly missed Sam Singer 3 pointers. The Bears only managed one made basket and 2/4 free throws . . . and that was enough because Montana missed all three shots they attempted from the field. Did I mention that this game was ugly?
The 2nd overtime saw much more offense as both teams traded baskets for the first four minutes before David Kravish hit what ended up being the winning basket with 28 seconds left. After that, here's what happened:
- Montana, trailing, used 22 seconds of clock without getting a shot off.
- Jordan Gregory just kinda fell over in the back court, which allowed Tyrone Wallace to grab the lose ball. Game over, right?
- Nah, Tyrone missed both free throws.
- Brandon Chauca, presumably believing that Wallace hit a free throw, intentionally fouled Gregory (a career 84% free throw shooter).
- Gregory misses both free throws
- Cal can't secure the rebound, and the ball goes out of bounds to Montana.
- Jermaine Edwards misses a not-horrible 3 point look at the buzzer.
Keep in mind, all of the above happened in six seconds of game time. Man, what did we just watch?
There's no real way to sugarcoat the performance. Cal was out of sorts from beginning to end, and based on what I watched I'm not really inclined to credit Montana. The Grizzlies do play a defensive style that tends to force turnovers, but Cal's 28% turnover rate was atrocious and featured more than a few dropped balls, air-mailed passes, and basic miscommunication between players. We rarely saw off the ball movement, and Cal seemed to struggle whenever Montana managed to either prevent an entry pass to Kravish or prevent Wallace from driving the lane.
Defensively, effort was poor for most of the game, before picking up when it became clear that the Grizzlies might actually win. If Montana had better shooters, this would not have been a particularly close game.
- I found the substitution pattern in this game pretty bizarre. Brandon Chauca made his Cal debut . . . and played 41 minutes. I get that somebody had to pick up the minutes vacated by Jabari Bird, but I think that surprised everybody. Kingsley Okoroh and Dwight Tarwater barely saw the court despite the fact that the rest of the lineup wasn't exactly setting the world on fire.
- Chauca was . . . many things. He's a fearless player, with a ton of energy, and will rightly endear himself to Cal fans for that reason. He entered the game when the Bears needed that energy, and played a role in building up the first half lead. But he also played a role in Montana's big 2nd half run that nearly cost Cal the game. Montana was able to exploit as his lack of size and lack of integration into Cal's system. Chauca will either need to grow into his role on the team or learn to scale back his play at times to defer to better options offensively. At the very least he showed a passing flair and enough shooting to make him a viable option. We'll see if he can hang with more talented teams.
- Sam Singer had another really rough game. If he's going to be a low usage, pass first point guard, he'll have to cut down on the turnovers. I'm assuming both games are just random blips, because he looked too good last year and earlier in this season to get down on so quickly.
- I wish Jordan Mathews and David Kravish had been a little more involved on offense. Both combined for just 20 shots in a 50 minute game. With Jabari Bird out, Cal needed their other main scoring options to step up and be more decisive. We didn't really see that until late in the 2nd half, when Mathews helped bring Cal back into the game himself.
Still, the Bears survived. They will look for a much stronger performance on the road in Reno this Sunday against Nevada. Having Jabari Bird back would be nice. Apparently his injury is day-to-day, so we'll see. If he's not back, and the Bears again lack energy and execution, they could well come back with a loss. Nevada is roughly as good as Montana and will obviously have home court advantage. Let's hope the Bears only need to learn this lesson once.