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Bears persevere for thrilling road win over Aztecs

Don Coleman leads the way in an important win for a young team

NCAA Basketball: California at San Diego State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Don alertly gets Cal an extra possession by picket the pocket of a sleepy SDSU guard, then smartly calling time out. Cal would get 2 free throws on the subsequent possession.

Don jumps for a rebound and has his legs taken out from under him, falling to the floor. The refs call a travel.

Don goes up for a layup in transition. There’s plenty of contact, and Don goes down hard. The refs don’t call anything. To add insult to injury, 220 pounds of Malik Pope falls on him. Don kicks him away in frustration as Pope grabs his leg.

The crowd boos Don Coleman with every touch of the ball. Cal’s coaches have Cal running clock on each possession and Don is playing point. He gets booed a lot.

Don Coleman leads Cal in points, defensive rebounds, and assists, while chipping in 3 steals. He plays 40 minutes and spent most of the game running the offense.

On the most important possession of the game, with Cal trailing by 4 with less than a minute to play, it’s Don driving the lane, and intentionally delaying his layup so that his defender has time to body check him onto the court for the and-1.

And after a Justice Sueing steal and two free throws from Juhwan Harris-Dyson, it’s Don who stops the ball, Don who knocks the ball away to disrupt the final possession, and it’s Don who gets to walk off the court like this:

Don Coleman isn’t the only reason to watch Cal basketball this year, but if he were the only reason it would be enough.

If we trying to understand how Cal won this game, we have to start with two simple stats. SDSU attempted 49 total shots. A shocking 28 of them (57%) were 3 pointers. And SDSU only made 6 of those 28 shots from deep, which is miserably bad.

Cal played the entire game in the 2-3 zone that was supposed to be their base defense this season before being semi-abandoned after the Chaminade debacle. But against one of the worst shooting teams on Cal’s schedule, the coaches made the smart decision to bring it back. San Diego State bizarrely obliged by continuing to shoot from behind the arc, and they missed juuuuuust enough of them for Cal to escape with the win.

The other critical defensive achievement was keeping the Aztecs off of the offensive glass. SDSU compensates for plenty of other offensive short comings by rebounding their own misses. But Cal’s compact, dare-you-to-shoot-open-3s defense rebounded 25 of SDSU’s 29 missed shots. When the Aztecs actually managed/tried to work for a shot inside the arc they tended to do rather well, shooting a high percentage and drawing lots of fouls. They didn’t do it nearly enough, and Cal was the direct beneficiary.

With 10:20 left in the game, Don hit a layup to give Cal an 8 point lead. With 42 seconds left, Don got his critical and-1 layup. In between that period of time, Cal scored 3 points, all from the free throw line.

Up to that point, Cal had been reasonably successful on offense. Cal found some success in the first half getting the ball to Marcus Lee and Kingsley Okoroh (7 combined field goals) when they were isolated on smaller defenders. Don had his usual success getting to the basket/line, but also mixed in some solid passes off of his driving. Justice Sueing hit some tough shots and Darius McNeill hit a couple 3s.

But SDSU has a borderline elite defense, and when they faced a deficit they turned up their intensity on the defensive end. Cal, to their credit, didn’t exactly crumble - they ran clock and ran their offense. They did turn the ball over 5 times in their field-goal-less span, but three of those were offensive fouls trying to work for shots against SDSU’s tight defense. Mostly, Cal just couldn’t create good looks and didn’t hit any of their (many) tough looks.

It wasn’t exactly encouraging to watch Cal’s 8 point lead turn into a 4 point deficit, but this wasn’t at all similar to Cal’s Wichita St. meltdown. And, most importantly, when Cal had to make a play if they wanted to win the game, they made them. Bucket, forced turnover, drawn foul, made free throws, solid defense. W.

Maybe the Bears just need to play every game against teams that they perceive as challenging?

Cal has played four games against Kenpom top 100 teams, going 1-3 with an average margin of -8.5. That’s pretty solid considering Cal’s talent and experience level! Cal has played 6 games against Kenpom 200+ (or DII) teams, going 3-3 with an average margin of -4.33. That’s . . . less solid. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but since when do Cal sports make sense?

It’s nice to take a break from worrying about this season and the long term arc of Cal basketball during a turbulent period. Despite everything, watching Cal play a tight game on the road against a legit opponent made everything else melt away as I focused on hoping for a stop on defense or a bucket on the other end.

I don’t know what to think about this team. This game could be a precursor to improved performances or a blip on the radar. I probably won’t know what to think about this team for some time. Right now, too much is unclear, too much is in flux.

But I’ll be damned if I’m not going to enjoy watching Don Coleman rip the heart out of an arena full of Aztec fans. SDSU has handed Cal more than their fair share of losses over the years, and in my experience their fans haven’t exactly been charitable about it either in person or online.

Beating any good team is a wonderful shot in the arm, both for the team and for the fans. Doing in on SDSU’s home floor is just a particularly delicious garnish on top.