By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA–The sobering reality of life in the “Conference of Champions” is that beyond all the competition, parity and national name recognition is an undesirable place reserved for the Pac-12’s downtrodden.
The Cal Bears have taken residence there–in 12th place–after Washington State’s Drick Bernstein slipped behind the defense and scored the game-winning layup with a second remaining at Haas Pavilion on Thursday.
The 78-76 loss to WSU in a wildy-competitive contest between the Pac-12’s most disadvantaged teams most certainly means the Bears will be the lowest seeded team in the conference tournament that commences in two weeks at Las Vegas. With the win, the Cougars swept the season series against Cal and would have to lose at least two of their final three league contests to fall behind the Bears.
When two teams have combined for just five conference wins, any movement in the standings in this short time frame is highly unlikely. Along with the drama laced into the victory, the scenario had WSU Coach Ernie Kent feeling very fortunate.
“For this team, with everything they’ve been through, similar to what Cal’s gone through, to come down here and play a much-improved Cal team, it was just a grind-it-out win for us,” Kent said.
On the game’s final play–on the heels of Marcus Lee’s tying basket with seven seconds remaining–the Cougars refused a timeout and rushed the ball up the floor where they found Cal’s defense scrambled. Bernstein slipped into the post and WSU guard Malachi Flynn found him for the game-winner.
“We weren’t communicating well enough and he got open for a layup,” said Cal’s scoring leader Justice Sueing, who finished with 25 points. “That game should have been ours.”
Despite the loss, the Bears achieved some level of redemption for their poor showing last month in Pullman, in which the Cougars embarassed the Bears in a 25-point win that turned lopsided after halftime. This time the Bears paid attention to WSU’s shooters, controlled the glass, and shared the ball offensively, illustrated by their 17 assists. But the Bears went scoreless for more than three minutes down the stretch, which allowed Washington State to draw even, and set up the dramatic finish in which there were five lead changes in the game’s final minutes.
Individually, the Bears did some notable things, most prominently Sueing’s 25 points, his sixth 20-point game of the season. Lee was a perfect 7 for 7 shooting from the floor. Darius McNeill hit three 3-pointers, and seldom-utilized Roman Davis came up with a career-best 15 points.
Washington State countered with four of their starters scoring in double figures led by Robert Franks with 15.
The Bears host Washington on Saturday in their regular season home finale.