Cal was already facing an uphill battle against top-seeded Oregon Friday night in the Pac-12 semifinals. Just one minute into the game, that climb got even steeper.
Bears leading scorer Jabari Bird fell hard on his head after leaping over the top of Oregon's Jordan Bell. Bird left the game to be evaluated for a concussion and later went to the hospital for a CT scan.
The Bears put forth an inspired effort without their senior leader, but ultimately fell 73-65 as Oregon advanced to Saturday's championship game.
“I thought we did a great job of competing, but that's what we're supposed to do,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “It's a big loss, especially on the offensive side of the ball, that level of production...It's not an easy thing to do, but I thought our guys did a great job of battling and competing.”
“It's tough to see a guy go down like that,” added senior guard Grant Mullins. “I just hope he's doing well and he makes a speedy recovery.”
In Bird's absence, Mullins had the game of his life, scoring a season-high 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting, including a perfect 5-for-5 from 3-point range.
“Once you see a few go in, it obviously helps your confidence,” Mullins said. “But I think a lot of my shots were off broken plays, and Charlie (Moore) and those guys were just able to find me.”
The Bears trailed by as many as 13 points in the second half, but rallied back to cut the deficit to 67-65 with 44 seconds left. All they needed was one stop, but Oregon's Dylan Ennis made the shot of the night, absorbing contact from Kingsley Okoroh and completing the three-point play with 22 seconds remaining to seal the victory.
“It was a hard fought game,” said freshman guard Charlie Moore, who scored 15 points. “I thought we played very tough the whole entire game. We were scoring and played great defense. We just couldn't come out with the win.”
“We played as hard as we could,” added junior center Kameron Rooks, who recorded two points and two rebounds in seven minutes. “Obviously we were missing (Jabari) Bird. In the end, we rebounded well, we fought hard.”
It was another subpar performance for all-conference forward Ivan Rabb, who shot just 4-of-12 from the field, finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds. The Ducks double-teamed Rabb most of the night, and he was unable to ever get going offensively.
“I missed a few easy ones too, but just doubling, so I kind of had to force a few shots, but that's part of the game,” Rabb said.
Oregon star Dillon Brooks also struggled. The Pac-12 Player of the Year scored just 10 points on 3-of 12 shooting, and played just 21 minutes due to foul trouble. But sophomore Tyler Dorsey stepped up for the Ducks, scoring 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, including 5-for-6 from beyond the arc.
Kingsley Okoroh had his second straight strong performance for the Bears, recording eight points, nine rebounds, and three blocks in 31 minutes. With those three rejections, he tied David Kravish for the Cal single-season record with 73.
Now the obvious question, aside from the health of Bird, is whether Friday's performance will be enough to earn Cal an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. According to most bracket experts, it's a long shot. But the Bears believe they have a strong case.
“We made it to the final four of the Pac-12, one of the best leagues, if not the best,” said Moore. “I think that's pretty good.”
“I think we're an NCAA Tournament team,” added Martin. “I didn't go into this game thinking we had to win to get into the NCAA Tournament. We went into this game so we could win the Pac-12 Tournament. That was our goal.”