You thought last week was Senior Night? You were wrong. Tonight was Senior Night.
After a heartbreaking loss on Thursday that saw the Bears once again fall just short of their first signature win away from Haas Pavilion, we faced the prospect of a letdown game to close out the season against ASU. The Bears could ill-afford such a letdown, with Pac-12 and NCAA seeding on the line, but sometimes the heart does what it does, and clearly on Saturday night the men in gold did not have their hearts in it.
Except for one guy.
Sometimes it's supposed to be easy but it's not. Sometimes you play an inferior opponent on their "senior night" and they show up and shoot well. Sometimes your two freshmen stars walk around in a daze. Sometimes your rejuvenated junior scorer has an empty game. Sometimes your vaunted, elite defense springs a leak.
And when that happens -- when the team is down double digits to inferior competition and is about to lose a game to a team that we shouldn't even be on the court with -- your senior leader has to step up. Tonight, Cal's senior leader did that.
This was Tyrone Wallace's game.
With 11:00 left and Cal down 8 points, it looked like the same old road Bears. Then, Ty went on his own personal 13-5 run.
On the delayed break, Ty took the ball on the right wing, easily split two defenders and got fouled. He knocked down both, in his first encounter with the curtain of distraction.
Cutting from the right baseline, Ty received a bounce pass from Jaylen Brown and threw down a massive right handed dunk over Eric Jacobsen, then pounded both fists and yelled over to the stunned Cal bench.
WOAH! TYRONE WALLACE! https://t.co/o8WDdYRGzz— Cal Men's Basketball (@CalMensBBall) March 6, 2016
Some guy named Mathews hit a three.
Ty had two bigs in the high post for easy entries, but he had other ideas. Waving the bigs away into a 1-4 flat, Ty drove by his man and was again fouled. Two more free throw makes. Curtain of distraction now in a standing 8 count.
Ty passed a couple times, and Jaylen and Ivan Rabb both missed easy finishes. Shaking his head, Ty decided: I'm the senior, let me do this. So on the next possession he drove left wing, again easily beat his man, and got to the line. Two more swishes. Curtain of distraction officially knocked out in 3 rounds.
Trademark Tyrone Wallace: drive from the top off a Kameron Rooks pick, around his man, over a help defender, off glass, two more.
And the cherry on top, with the shot clock winding down on yet another stagnant Cal possession, Ty received a bailout pass from Ivan in the left corner, and with :03 on the shot clock rose over his man with a confident stroke. Swish. Again. Cal had a 55-52 lead that they would never relinquish.
I've talked a lot about what Tyrone Wallace isn't: A true point guard. A natural passer. A guy with a good sense of space. But tonight we saw what Ty Wallace is: An elite driver and slasher. A senior. A leader. A man with a huge heart. Tyrone Wallace was not going to let his team lose this game. Ironically, he had one of his best passing games of the year, and his normally reliable teammates couldn't finish. No matter. Get on my back, you could almost hear him saying. This one's on me.
Leaders don't let their teams lose these kinds of games.
Cal 68 - ASU 65.
The Things We Have to Work On
Much has been made of Cal's road woes, and we saw them rear their ugly heads again tonight.
Defense: One of the unsung components of Cal's elite defense this year has been its ability to run shooters off the three point line. They allow opponents to shoot 26% of their shots from 3p range, 4th in the nation. ASU's normal percentage is 39%. In the first half Cal allowed ASU to shoot 34% of their FG attempts from deep. Advantage ASU. More tellingly, most of those attempts were poorly contested or not contested at all. Pair the failure to defend the three pointer with letting Eric Jacobsen (who?) get whatever he wants around the rim, and there is reason for concern. Cal came out soft. They came out without energy. They weren't playing defense. A Cal team that doesn't play energetic defense is mediocre.
ASU led by 5 at halftime.
That changed in the 2nd half. During the Ty Wallace RunTM, ASU's shot attempts looked like this:
Contested off balance floater from 10 feet.
Shot clock violation.
Contested long two with one foot just inside the 3p line.
Contested long three off the dribble and fading.
Open long two from 18 feet.
Shot clock violation.
Contested fadeaway three.
Contested long two from 17 feet.
We talk a lot about winning the shot selection battle. THAT is what we call winning the shot selection battle. Starting next week, Cal will have to do that from the jump, and not just during the last 10 minutes. That's how you lose games.
Whither Jabari? Jabari Bird was 0-3 in 18 minutes of action. I've said before that I think a confident Jabari makes us an elite team. Without Jabari? We struggle against ASU.
Whither the freshmen? Ivan Rabb looked out of sorts all game. Jaylen Brown looked worse. Maybe it was a hangover from Thursday. Maybe it was just the inevitable ups and downs of learning college basketball. Whatever the case, our senior can't carry us every night. On Tyrone Wallace's back we produced 1.01 points per possession against a bad defense that usually gives up 1.03. Let's agree to call that bad offense. We need all our guys. Starting in Las Vegas.
This is my last scheduled recap of the year. If things go well for the Bears, I may be writing about a few more games, but it's possible I won't. If not, I want to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate the CGB community and our shared journey together. This has been a special season, and I will always remember it. I hope the best memories are still to come, but I am also wary of how quickly it can end. If and when it does, I hope we appreciate how great these guys were, not just on the court, but off. Life is fleeting, and we may never see their likes again. Together. They attacked. And made us proud.