Stunning. Devastating. Predictable.
Most of us Cal fans most likely don’t want to admit it but we all saw some form of this game coming. In a season where we have rarely seen a complete game played against a top conference opponent, Wednesday evening would end up no different from the rest. There was plenty to like from this game, a competitive contest that ended up coming down to the wire. However even the forever optimist in me couldn’t get away from thinking that the conclusion was somehow inevitable. There were a couple of distinct themes in this game, most notably the Bears inability to capitalize on offensive possessions and the dramatic implosion of the Bears that we witnessed in the final five minutes.
Missed Offensive Opportunities
If you watched the first half of this game alone you could reasonably come away with two clear takeaways, one regarding each team. Cal, with their NCAA tournament eligibility seemingly on the line, came out fired up playing an intense brand of defense and acting like a team with their backs against the wall. They suffocated the Oregon offense, were quick to the ball each defensive possession and didn’t allow many second chance opportunities. They also played an incredibly clean first half of basketball with the team not reaching the bonus.
Oregon on the other hand was clearly playing a brand of basketball far below their standard, scoring a measly 16 first half points. Dillon Brooks looked, for the most part, human and the Ducks offense was flat out off. The Cal coaching staff deserves credit for inspiring their team to come out with a ton of energy but it was also clear that Oregon was vastly underperforming.
Despite Cal’s 14 point lead at the break, it’s hard not to think that the Bears should have been able to build a lead of 20 or even 25 points given how many chances they had. The Bears were bottling up Oregon each possession yet Cal couldn’t put together consistent productive offensive possessions. Particularly later in the first half, it felt that after each defensive hold the Bears would find new ways to blow another opportunity to stretch their lead.
Within the last minute or so of the first half, we saw two quintessential examples of this offensive ineptitude. Oregon stepped out of bounds after a solid defensive possession and Cal pushed the ball up the floor. Stephen Domingo then found himself in the paint with a clear layup and passed on the shot by kicking it out to the wing and the Bears reset. Jabari Bird would then drive into the lane and eventually kick the ball out to Charlie Moore who would miss a wide open three pointer. The very next possession the Bears forced the Ducks to repeatedly reset the ball and eventually came up with a big block to secure the final possession. Moore moved the ball up the floor, opted for a low percentage ally oop (which failed) and the Bears squandered two possessions to push the lead to 17 or even 20 points. In a game that came down to the last minute, those extra possessions felt like the difference maker.
To be frank, what we witnessed in the second half wasn’t necessarily an implosion as much as it was better coaching but we all know “better coaching” is an inferior headline. The Bears maintained their distance on the Ducks throughout the second half, keeping a healthy lead on the Ducks for most of the remaining half.
Dillon Brooks will receive most of the hype from this game (deservedly so) however Chris Boucher was the MVP for the Ducks. With Brooks in foul trouble and Cal itching to pull away, Boucher hit multiple three pointers to pull the Ducks right back within a manageable deficit. Every time Oregon needed an answer, they seemed to get just that and more often than not Boucher had something to do with it. And yet even with Oregon starting to find its rhythm, Cal still maintained a ten point lead with seven minutes to go and a seven point lead with 3:43 remaining. At long last, the disappearing act would begin and the Bears would start to crumble.
Within three minutes, Cal would watch their once double digit second half lead turn into an Oregon advantage. The Ducks found themselves on a 6-0 run late in the game while the Bears hadn’t made a field goal in nearly five minutes. Possession after possession the Bears struggled to find any good look and the biggest thing keeping them in the game was their ability to get to the charity stripe.
Oregon to their credit put pressure on Cal all game and late the Bears struggled to break out of the Ducks press. One of the biggest moments of the game was when Charlie “Buckets” Moore ended up breaking through the press entirely on his own and ended up making a freshman mistake. Instead of resetting the ball, Charlie spotted Mullins on the wing and decided to make a risky cross-court pass. The ball was intercepted and the Ducks capitalized with a three to bring the game within one point. After the Bears and Ducks traded another two points, Sam Singer would make a costly mistake tossing a lob pass in the air that Oregon stole and converted into a layup. The Ducks had finally taken the lead.
While the two turnovers were particularly painful they don’t accurately highlight the Bears true futility in the final four minutes of the ball game. Here is each Cal possession coming down the stretch:
- 3:47 Jabari Bird missed three
- 3:11 Charlie Moore turnover
- 2:44 Charlie Moore free throws are good (2/2)
- 2:11 Sam Singer turnover
- 1:23 Grant Mullins jumper is good
- 0:29 Jabari Bird missed three
- 0:10 Ivan Rabb tip back is good
Four of seven possessions resulted in either a turnover or a low probability shot and even the Grant Mullins jumper at the 1:23 mark felt like a gift. The Bears struggled on offense and the lack of touches to Ivan (outside of the Bears last possession) down the stretch is a major cause for concern.
Jabari Bird will be missed next year
I want to take a moment to appreciate what it’s like to watch Jabari Bird in Haas when he is feeling it. When the Bears create space for him, his shot is a thing of beauty and starts to feel automatic. Wednesday night it became abundantly clear that when you got Jabari in the right spot, the shot was going down. He is such an important piece to this team and its been great to see him grow over the years.
Kam Rooks plays bigger on one leg than most on two.
A seven footer that can play big down low and shoot well at the stripe is not something that comes around all too often. Kam had a couple of huge plays to keep the Bears lead at ten points when it started to feel like Oregon could make a run. Had the Bears been able to pull this one out, Kam would have been an unsung hero.
The Bears desperately need another scoring option
A key point late in the game was when Oregon went to a smaller lineup forcing Cal to play Domingo over Rooks. The Ducks exploited that mismatch defensively and offensively any rhythm that the Bears had disappeared. With Mullins and Moore cold most of the night, there was not another option for the Bears outside of Rabb and Bird. Rabb was routinely seeing a double team anytime he caught the ball and Oregon wasn’t giving Bird an inch of space late in the game. The Bears need a couple more scorers who can contribute off the bench and create their own shot if they want to move to the top tier of the conference next season.