By Morris Phillips
After appearing languid in their loss to Utah on Wednesday, the Cal Bears—with everything to play for—expected to be much more in step against Colorado.
But for much of Saturday afternoon there wasn’t much difference. The blown defensive assignments and poor shooting were still very apparent so much so that down the stretch of a close game, several Cal players could be seen passing up open, makeable shots.
It may be March, but after dropping 8 of their previous 12 games, the Bears and its skeptical Haas Pavilion crowd were operating several notches below madness.
So how did the Bears come from behind late, force overtime, and then pull out a heart stopping 66-65 victory?
“The guys were on the same page. That made all the difference in the world,” Coach Mike Montgomery said. “We made some bad plays and missed some shots. I just told them going in, ‘team, team, team.’ Not everybody was perfect but they did a pretty good job.”
While the Bears (19-12, 10-8) won a game they had to have—securing the fourth-seed in the Pac-12 tournament with the win and a bye into the tourney’s quarterfinal round—they did little to impress the NCAA committee or probably even themselves. Remarkably, the Bears missed their final 10 shots from the field—0 for 7 in overtime—but pulled it out because they managed to make nine of their final 11 free throws. Justin Cobbs’ pair of makes with just 21 seconds remaining in the extra session gave the Bears a slim one-point lead that held up after Askia Booker and Xavier Talton both missed threes with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Despite shooting just 35 percent for the game and failing to hold a lead for nearly seven minutes after Richard Solomon scored the Bears’ final basket with 2:45 remaining in regulation, the Bears survived. Far from an NCAA team at this juncture, the Bears maintained hope with the win. A couple of more wins next week in Las Vegas—one of which would have to be over regular season-champ Arizona in the semis—and the Bears could still dance.
“You can’t look too forward to even the NCAAs or the Championships for the Pac-12,” Solomon admitted. “That’s why we have to take it one game at a time and just focus on that and worry about getting a ‘W’ as they come.”
“It’s going to give us a little more confidence going in and a little feel good,” Montgomery said. “We still have 19 wins and we’re still fourth in the league. Are we a top 10 team? Probably not. But this is where we are.”
Had Colorado’s Xavier Johnson not cooled slightly, the Bears wouldn’t have forced overtime. Johnson scored 21 of the Buffs’ first 42 points, as he deftly beat bigger Cal players with his quickness and smaller ones with his powerful frame. But down the stretch, Johnson cooled and the Bears hung around. But it wasn’t easy: Cal was outrebounded by 10, allowed 14 offensive rebounds and saw its three perimeter starters—Cobbs, Ricky Kreklow and Tyrone Wallace—miss 30 of their combined 37 shot attempts.
Cobbs finished with 21 points, Solomon and David Kravish added 14 each. Johnson led Colorado with 24 points aided by Askia Booker with 11 and Josh Scott with 10.
The Bears now await the winner of the Wednesday’s USC-Colorado opening round matchup with Cal’s opener scheduled for 2:30pm on Thursday. The Bears finished in a five-way tie for third place at 10-8, but got the better of several tie-breakers that placed them behind third-seeded Arizona State, but ahead of fifth-seeded Colorado, sixth-seeded Stanford and seventh-seeded Oregon, which won its final seven conference games.