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Cal MBB Loses Late Lead To Washington State, Falls 78-76

Justice Sueing’s 25 points aren’t quite enough.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The season is winding down for the Cal men’s basketball team, which has caused me to watch the freshmen even more closely. I didn’t have to look hard tonight, with a couple of first-year players showing promise with just three more games left in the regular season. Unfortunately, Cal let the most winnable remaining game on the schedule go by the boards despite leading within the last minute. On one hand there was a lot of effort and some decent execution on the part of the Bears. On the other, it was another crushing defeat for the diehards who are still watching. A Drick Bernstine layup with 1.7 seconds remaining broke the tied score as Washington State won 78-76.

I began the day brimming with confidence after watching the USA women’s hockey team defeat arch-rival Canada in a shootout during the gold medal game the night before. Unfortunately, the Bears had their game end in a fashion worthy of this frustrating season, with Cal falling to 8-20 for the campaign despite strong performances from a couple of players who normally play supporting roles.

The game began in absurd fashion. With the Washington vs. Stanford game not ending quickly enough, the Pac-12 Networks ticker announced a bonus link for fans to watch the beginning of the Cal game. As things turned out, the TV feed ended up cutting to Haas Pavilion about 30 seconds after the bonus feed kicked on. The hoops we jump through to follow our favorite (struggling) team lose in heartbreaking fashion!

Next, the camera panned to WSU coach Ernie Kent, who I remember best from his days coaching Oregon as I watched from my perch among the members of the Straw Hat Band. The broadcastets then reminded everyone of Robert Franks and his 34-point game in Pullman as WSU defeated the Bears 78-53 on January 13. It was probably a relief to Cal fans that he led the Cougars with just 15 on this night. However, WSU boasted a balanced attack throughout.

Cal got off to an auspicious start with a 6-0 lead. Marcus Lee made two buckets and Juhwan Harris-Dyson was responsible for the other. Meanwhile, Cal registered two early blocks. Bernstine was coaxed into an ill-advised travel during what looked like an easy layup situation. Justice Sueing then showed off a pretty spin in the post ending in a layup for an 8-1 home team advantage. It was a good early sign, and indeed the freshman would lead all scorers with 25 points.

Carter Skaggs had the first field goal for WSU nearly four minutes in, but a Franks scoop shot made the game 10-5 Bears. Don Coleman would enter and was immediately fouled at the rim, but missed both foul shots. Suddenly, the Cougars had a barrage going: a Malachi Flynn three was sandwiched around two easy baskets for Bernstine and the scoreboard read 12-10 in favor of the visitors. Soon afterward, Sueing drained one from a step behind the arc and it was 15-13 WSU.

Bernstine continued to torment the Cal defense, driving to the hoop without regard to the presence of Kingsley Okoroh. He had a quiet second half but finished with 14 points on 7-9 shooting. When Roman Davis came on as a substitute, few fans could expect the impact he would have on the game as a whole. Meanwhile, the game was getting sloppy, with turnovers by both squads resulting in a Skaggs slam dunk to make it 21-15 Cougars.

Coleman missed with an awkward shot attempt, then Franks surprised everyone by misfiring from three-point land. Suddenly, Cal had gone 1-8 from the floor during recent possessions. It was music to the ears of the Haas Pavilion faithful when Davis went into the paint and scored as Cal trailed by 4. Davis then hit a jumper from the wing to make it 21-19.

Buckets by Bernstine and Flynn ran the Cal deficit to six, but Darius McNeill showed off a smooth shooting stroke to answer with a three. McNeill was 3-11 for the night, but that was something of a sigh of relief at the time. When Harris-Dyson came up short on a dunk attempt, it was no problem for Davis on the follow. While Davis was whistled for a technical foul after hanging on the rim, the Bears were back within two.

Not long afterward, Sueing displayed nice touch on the run and tied the game at 26 with a lay-in. Skaggs answered back, but then Harris-Dyson put home a Sueing miss. That was followed by consecutive threes by Kwinton Hinson and Skaggs, who took advantage of some defensive chaos. The good news: Harris-Dyson was really starting to assert himself by scoring on a drive that resulted in a mild injury to Flynn, who would later return.

Alas, Harris-Dyson didn’t get the triple-double, but he ended with an impressive line of 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists. However, the Pac-12 broadcast noted that the Cougars had gone 15-23 from the field after an 0-5 start. WSU shot 50% for the game, compared to a similar 49% for the Bears. Harris-Dyson closed out the half by penetrating and dishing to Lee who nailed a jumper. Flynn missed a desperation attempt at the horn and WSU led 38-36.

Viont’e Daniels got the Cougars off to a strong start in the second half with five quick points. It took a layup and three-pointer on consecutive possessions by Sueing to keep the Washington State lead at 45-42. Lee impressed with a whirling dervish style move en route to a layup, but Franks answered with a three-point play thanks to a Davis foul and WSU led 48-44. Later, an unlikely Davis three-pointer brought Cal within 50-47. Sueing made the score 53-50 WSU with 12:45 to play and reminded me of the old Marv Albert line: “It counts, and the foul!”

However, the Cougar ball movement led to some good looks including a Milan Acquaah score. McNeill answered with a wide open three and Cal trailed 55-53. Lee was able to thwart Jeff Pollard’s inside hook, then tied the game on the other end. Fast forward to a Sueing three-pointer, and Cal grabbed the lead at 58-57. There would be plenty of lead changes down the stretch. After a Bernstine layup, Sueing drilled another trey and spun around in celebration with Cal up by two.

The freshman Acquaah came in averaging about four points per game, but he had seven quick ones as the game wound toward the end thanks to free throws and a made three-pointer. However, Davis would keep the Bears in it; he ended the night with an eye-popping 15 points and 6 rebounds. WSU led just 71-70 after Daniels hit from deep with 2:47 left. A Davis layup put California ahead 74-73 with 1:38 left and Flynn missed on the other end. However, McNeill made a bad pass out of a timeout with under a minute to go, and Flynn got his next three-point attempt to go.

The game seemed headed to overtime after Lee bulled his way to the hoop and tied the game at 76 with the clock reading :07. Lee was a perfect 7-7 from the field. In a flash, Flynn found Bernstine for the game’s final layup and OT was not to be.