On the 10th of March, after 32 excruciating games in which the California Golden Bears Men's Basketball Team was pretty good, but not quite good enough, there was still a chance. After playing too close with the worst team in the conference, after almost blowing a double digit lead and giving away one of the best performances of the year, after two days in Vegas...on the third night, there was still a chance. Despite a season in which the Bears could never quite get over the hump in big games--despite losing 5 of the last 6 games in the regular season--on Friday night, there it was:
The Oregon Ducks. The potential marquee win. A spot in the conference championship game and an NCAA tournament berth on the line. On the 10th of March, the California Golden Bears Men's Basketball Team stood on the precipice.
And the result, as it turned out, was predictably, sadly, unjustly...the same as it ever was. The 2016-17 Bears we have come to know. The flaws and the fates exposed. The ring just out of reach. The heartbreak. The emptiness. The promise and the hope unfulfilled.
On the 10th of March it was a microcosm.
One minute...one minute!...into the game, with Cal up 3-0, Charlie Moore was mistakenly switched onto Dillon Brooks on the left block. Kingsley Okoroh came over to double the mismatch. It was Jabari Bird's job to rotate over onto Okoroh's man, Jordan Bell, but he waited a second too long. Then, as Bell pump faked, Jabari came across the lane and leapt high into the air for a shot block that would have been impossible. Bird came down on the side of his head, was immediately taken out of the game, and a few minutes later was on his way to the hospital.
Jabari Bird who missed 4 games his freshman year, and 10 games his sophomore year, and his only shot at an NCAA appearance his junior year, and 6 games at the beginning of his senior year, would not play in the biggest game of Cal's season. Microcosm.
Without their best player, in their third game in three nights, against the best team in the conference, prospects seemed bleak. But we have seen this team bounce back from myriad disappointment to scrap and claw and fight to stay in games and to save their season. Tonight was no exception. Somehow, without their best offensive player and on the strength of a near-perfect shooting night from Grant Mullins, this Bear did not quit and it did not die. Somehow, this Bear stayed in it the whole first half and, against every obstacle, after going down double digits midway through the 2nd half, this Bear fought to within 4 points by the last TV timeout of the 2nd half.
And then the sad refrain.
3:50, 64-60 -- Rabb duck-in one on one with Bell on the right block, nice post entry from Charlie. Inside pivot, quick dribble right. Fouled. But he could only convert one foul shot. Microcosm.
3:17, 64-61 -- Roger Moute a Bidias, ostensibly in for defense, gets too easily screened by Bell as Dillon Brooks gets to the rim. Okoroh's help is late and passive. Layup. A rotation that is easy early in the game is blown late in the game. Microcosm.
2:58, 66-61 -- Rabb again on the right block, this time immediate rise, jumper, splash. Cal still in it.
2:29, 66-63 -- A microcosm of a different kind: strong defensive rotations, the trademark of the Bears for two years, lead to a missed, off-balance long two for Brooks. Life.
2:10, 66-63 -- Moore is trying to enter the post but hesitates. As he hesitates he picks up his dribble, then puts it on the floor again. Double dribble. Inexplicable trouble with an easy post entry. A freshman error in a crucial situation. Stop me if you've heard this before. Microcosm.
1:48, 66-63 -- Again the Cal defensive rotations are perfect. Again they force a tough, long jumper. Missed. Still one possession.
1:22, 66-63 -- This time Oregon throws a quick double at Rabb on that same right block. Rabb cannot do anything with the double and holds the ball for 6 seconds. After the ball finally resets, the only open man is Kingsley, who throws up a reverse pivot lefty jump hook. I repeat, the best option we could find out of an Ivan Rabb double team was Kingsley Okoroh for a reverse pivot, left-handed, jump hook. The double on Ivan throws the offense into Neverland. I KNOW you've heard this before. Microcosm.
1:12, 67-63 -- After a FT by Oregon, Cuonzo calls time out then sends out a lineup of Charlie, Grant, Roger, Ivan, and Stephen Domingo...a lineup that has probably not played any meaningful minutes together all season. Roger fails to cut to the ball after the first option is denied and Cal has to use a timeout. That would normally be Jabari's play, and a makeshift lineup necessitated by injury and foul trouble costs the Bears. Microcosm.
1:00, 67-63 -- This time a crisp play out of the time out, penetration and kick opposite to a completely wide open Domingo in the right corner. A gutsy call, because Domingo is Domingo, but coming off a good shooting night, and with few scoring options, it's a good look. But it's also a choice you'd rather not have to make. You'd rather have Jabari Bird in that corner. You'd rather have options off the bench who aren't shooting below eFG 35%. You'd rather have other ways to score. But what you do have is Stephen Domingo wide open for three. And that's all you've got. He misses. Microcosm.
:23, 67-65 -- After two Moore FTs, the Bears need one stop for a chance at this game. One stop for the vaunted Cal defense--the best Cal defense ever. One stop between them and a clean shot at the NCAA tournament. One stop they couldn't get. Dylan Ennis gets the ball in high pick and roll and Moore has no chance to get through the screen. Okoroh, the help defender, must show high or get back to the rim and get vertical. He does neither. He meets Ennis, moving backward, 5 feet from the rim and Ennis goes straight into his body. A critical defensive mistake at the most inopportune time.
And one. Game over. Signature win gone. Hope gone. NCAA chances gone.
Despite the battle and the heart and the toughness and the razor thin margins, the Bears come up just short. Their offense doesn't have enough options and enough execution and, ultimately, enough buckets. The defense is not quite enough to salvage a dysfunctional offense. The breaks do not fall their way. Microcosm.
Sometimes a team does everything within its power. Sometimes everything isn't good enough.
Sometimes a team is flawed.
Sometimes seasons die before they should. Sometimes teams deserve better than they get. Sometimes sport is cruel.
While there will be no celebration and no nets to cut down and no NCAA trip next week, there will be a simple fact. On this night, losing their best player, playing one of the great basketball teams in the country, this Cal team had no right to be in this game. They were in it anyway.
This is Cal basketball. Together. They attacked.