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Cal beats Utah in a thriller: A closer look

Because when Cal wins in double overtime, it’s worth savoring.

NCAA Basketball: Utah at California
Ivan gets so many ‘Alas, fair Yorick’ pictures that maybe we should consider Hamlet as a nickname?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As the season draws ever closer towards March, the inherent tenseness of college basketball becomes all-consuming:


Do you want to know what more than an hour of 100% clenched terror looks like?

win expectancy cal utah

Atoms was more or less dead on. The final 26 minutes of Cal vs. Utah were played at high leverage, with the result hanging in the balance of every possession. Until the end of the 2nd overtime, Cal’s biggest lead was four points. Utah’s biggest lead was three. The actual lead changed four times, but the expected winner changed 12 times. This certainly reflects how I felt watching the damned game - the outcome was poised on a knife’s edge as soon as Utah closed the gap to a possession.

But Cal won, somehow. Let’s talk about that somehow.

Interior defense

I mentioned it in the comments of the post-game recap, but it bears repeating: Utah is currently 8th in the nation in 2 point shot percentage at 57%. Cal held them to a season low of 45%, and it was Cal’s interior defense that allowed the Bears to escape with a victory despite scoring just 22 points in the 2nd half and managing just three field goals in the final 10 minutes of regulation.

Check out this video made to highlight Ivan’s contributions:

The whole thing is worth watching, but if you want to skip to the point, head to the 2:15 mark.

It’s Utah’s last possession in regulation, and they’re up 1. If they score, Cal probably loses. Utah runs a high screen and gets Ivan switched onto Lorenzo Bonam. I don’t know if that’s what the Utes were going for, but generally speaking it’s a favorable situation to get a quick guard who is shooting 71% on 2 pointers switched onto a more immobile big.

Ivan isn’t your typical big. He matches Bonam’s drive step for step, blocks his shot up to himself (a skill that most of Cal’s bigs have developed) and gives Cal a chance at the other end.

The next two possessions show how Ivan’s elite rebounding skills deny opponents 2nd chances while earning Cal extra shots (or, in this case, free throws) of their own.

The next possession (3:15 mark) takes us all the way into double overtime. I’m not sure why the makers of the video highlight Ivan on this next possession, because Ivan loses position inside to Kuzma. But thankfully, an increasingly-less-rusty Kam Rooks slides over perfectly, extends his full height as vertically as possible, and bothers Kuzma’s shot to force the miss as Ivan cleans up the glass. Most teams with Cal’s offense would be screwed losing a defender like Kingsley to fouls. As much as anything else the secret to Cal’s defense is having THREE elite rim protectors to rotate in and out of the game.

Jabari Bird

Of course, we’re really just burying the lede. Jabari scored 16 points in the last 14 minutes of the game:

Sometimes (honestly, more often than we’d all prefer in Cal’s offense) somebody just has to make a play - by having the stones to take the open jumper, by taking the initiative to drive the lane and hit the pull up in traffic.

Plus, it also helps if you’re great at ghosting down the baseline against a zone and your point guard is a lob savant. Winning baskets are always fun, but it’s extra sweet to get them with style.