Are you a glass-half-full person or a glass-half-empty person? How you interpret a half full/empty glass may also determine how you view this game for the outlook of the Golden Bears. At least until we have more information about how the team will grow from this heartbreaking loss.
Ultimately, how the Bears play in their next few games will determine whether Tuesday night's game was the coming-of-age of two talented freshmen or a great missed opportunity (Okay, this was certainly a missed opportunity for the Bears' potential NCAA seed situation; but we are getting waaay ahead of ourselves by talking about the tournament at this juncture).
Alas, this was most definitely a huge missed opportunity for the California Golden Bears (9-3) against a very well coached Virginia Cavaliers (10-1) squad that is probably slightly overrated as the 5th ranked team in the country. UVA was able to win their 9th game in a row, thanks to this 63-62 (OT) thriller that saw the Bears lead for the a large majority of the game (sad fact - Virginia only led for 32 seconds for the entire game).
In front of a raucous and hostile crowd at John Paul Jones Arena, that was mostly quieted by the Bears' solid play until late in the second half, and on national TV (so apparently the first half was mostly preempted by that Michigan State - Oakland game), the Cal super freshmen duo of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb had the best games of their young college career. With the Bears sporting some special Nike Air Jordans, Georgia native Jaylen Brown had a game high 18 points playing in possibly the closest game to home of his Cal freshman season. Brown was handed the key to the Cal offense for the bulk of the second half and OT; he was making things happen with his ability to drive toward the basket. Ivan Rabb pitched in a near double-double with 12 rebounds, including 5 offensive ones, to go with 9 points - mostly on putbacks. Bears may not have gotten enough production from Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird in this one, but assuming that we can count on this type of production from the freshmen and one of the trio of Wallace, Bird, and Jordan Mathews to shoot well (on Tuesday night, it was Mathews). Cal finally affirms a bit of the preseason hype that there are enough talent here for the squad to beat just about anyone in the country (also still enough issue for a random solid less-talented team to really test the Bears).
Sadly, what people will remember the most about this game is how the Bears were not able to close this game out. Bears had a 7 point lead with 7:33 left in regulation, but let that slip away. In OT, the Bears were up by 6 points with 2:23 to go and 5 points with 1:47 left but could not defend the 3-pointer.
In the end of regulation, the Bears scored merely 2 points in the last 7:33. A London Perrantes layup and a Malcolm Brogdon three brought UVA to within 2. Anthony Gill tied the game for the "Hoos" (UVA are officially the Cavaliers but they are better known as Wahoos or just Hoos) with 4:18 left on a nice post move that was relatively well defended by Kingsley Okoroh. After the two team traded misses, Jordan Mathews had a costly turnover that led to an easy breakaway dunk by Darius Thompson (a transfer from Tennessee who joined Virginia after Cuonzo Martin's departure to Berkeley) to put UVA up by 2 with 1:02 left. The Bears showed their toughness though as Jaylen Brown would not be denied; Brown was fouled by Brogdon and calmly sank both free throws to minimize the Virginia lead to just 20 seconds at that point. With a chance to win the game at the buzzer, Brown lost the ball to Brogdon at the last second and never got a shot off (freshman growing pain?).
In OT, the Bears built their lead behind two traditional three point plays from Brown and Tyrone Wallace since the Bears' best play is to attack the basket (in a controlled manner, of course). A tip in by Rabb in traffic made the lead 6 with 2+ minutes left. Unfortunately, a lucky bounce off a miss allowed Isaiah Wilkins to get his own traditional 3 point play. Malcolm Brogdon then hit a 3 pointer (Sam Singer couldn't close out on him fast enough) to cut the Cal lead to 2. After another Wallace miss, UVA had the ball with 23 seconds to go. London Perrantes got a little too much space from Wallace and the Virginia junior drilled a 3 to give UVA the lead with 12 seconds to go. According to Coach Tony Bennett, Perrantes had the option to take the shot early if he has a good look. Perrantes finished with 10 points (2 of 3 from outside) to go with a game-high 6 assists.
Instead of taking a timeout to setup for a play, Cuonzo Martin allowed Wallace to push the other way. This was probably the right thing to do since the Bears have not been all that effective out of set plays all season long. Wallace forced a quick shot up that was grabbed by Isaiah Wilkins. Wilkins, however, gave the Bears an opening as he missed the front end of the one-and-one. With 2.7 seconds left, Singer was able to get the ball to Jaylen Brown just outside the 3 point arc. Sadly, the Bears' upset bid fell just short as the last second heave by Brown was no good.
The game started very promisingly for the Bears. Jordan Mathews was on fire to start the game for the Bears, he finished the game with 16 points - but got the bulk of that by the midpoint of the 2nd half. Most importantly, Bears allowed merely two offensive boards and contested quite a few shots as the Hoos managed to make only 4 of 22 from the field (that's 18.2% shooting) in the first half. Sadly, the halftime lead was not bigger due to the 12 free throw attempts by the home team (they made 10 of 12) compared to just 1 FT for the Bears. Bears also didn't help their case by committing more turnovers, particularly the 4 offensive fouls in the first half.
The two 7-footers for the Bears in Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh really gave UVA a bunch of problems. UVA was only able to stay in the game in the first half thanks to their freshman forward Jarred Reuter earning repeated trips to the charity stripe to provide the offensive spark off the bench. Reuter finished the game with 11 points to be second leading scorer for the Cavaliers.
Senior Anthony Gill was the top scorer for the Hoos with 17 points. He shot merely 5 for 14, however, thanks to the solid Cal defense on two point field goals. One can hear Coach Martin repeatedly yelling to his players to make the oppositions earn it from the outside. Unfortunately, UVA was able to make 7 of their 12 attempts from beyond the arc. Malcolm Brogdon was 3 for 5 from 3-pointland but 0 for 7 from inside the arc.
Both teams started the second half on fire. After making only 18.2% of their shots in the first half, Virginia rebounded with 54.2% field goal percentage in the second half. While UVA finally started to make their shots, the Bears were able to answer with buckets of their own or trips to the free throw line. Cal twice had leads of 11 points in the second half before the Bears became a bit over reliant on just allowing Jaylen Brown to make things happen. Brown did earn a game high 9 free throw attempts (he made 8 of them) - he singlehanded made the final free throw tallies for the game relatively even, but I would have loved to see the Bears pass the ball more. For the entire game, the Bears only had 10 assists on their 23 field goals. That's a rather low assist total. By comparison, UVA had 14 assists on their 21 field goals.
Jordan Mathews was 4 of 8 from beyond the arc. Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird made a 3-pointer apiece for the Bears. As a team, the Bears only made 6 of 17 shots from outside. Ultimately, Tyrone Wallace had a bad night shooting the ball for the Bears, making only 4 of 13 from the field. Wallace did have two key steals that led to immediate Cal points, however.
I am going to steal what Avi said on Twitter tonight.
Cal is top 5 in the nation in 2 point defense and bottom 40 in 3 point defense. Bears are at best one-and-done in tourney if that continues.— Avinash Kunnath (@avinashkunnath) December 23, 2015
This 3 point defense thing is going to drive me nuts. It is a combination of both some bad luck (opposing teams appear to be making more of their good looks than plausible) and bad closing out technique by the team. We will have to do much better to have consistent success in conference play and beyond.
Watching the team in action in person for the first time this year, I was super impressed by Ivan Rabb's Dennis Rodmanesque ability to grab just about every loose ball. His rebounding talent definitely is enough to allow him to play at the next level, although he may still develop a much needed offensive game in the second half of the season this year.
No question about it, Jaylen Brown had a great game (5 for 11 from the field, 6 rebounds). Nevertheless, I would have love to see better ball movement from the Bears. Brown's slashing ability is one of the Bears' best weapon. A key difference between tonight and some of the earlier Cal games may be that Brown was only called for 2 offensive fouls (he had 4 turnovers on the game).
Bears will return home to host Davidson on Monday night. Coincidentally, the Golden State Warriors also have a home game at roughly the same time that night, so I doubt Davidson alum Steph Curry will be making an appearance at Haas Pavilion. How the Bears fare in that game and the subsequent Pac-12 opening homestand against Colorado and Utah will tell us whether this Virginia game is indeed the turning point of the season. Can the freshmen keep up their good work and can Tyrone Wallace redeem himself from this bad game?
Until then, the Bears have to take solace in that they pushed one of the top team in the country to the brink at their home court. Bears played with the type of energy, particularly defensively, that they have not consistently displayed on the year so far. Should the Bears be able to play like this for the rest of the season, there are still enough time yet for the team to live up to the hype of having three NBA caliber players on the roster.