By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, CA — A month ago, Colorado handed Cal its worst loss. On Saturday night, the Bears returned the favor.
Matt Bradley scored a career-best 29 points to lead Cal past Colorado, 71-62, snapping their seven-game losing streak in the process. Makale Foreman converted a pair of free throws with 16:58 remaining and the Bears never trailed again, a stunning reversal after the Bears lost by 29 points at Boulder on January 14.
“We played as well as we have all year,” coach Mark Fox said.
Buffs coach Tad Boyle tried to impress upon his club beforehand the sneaky challenge Cal presents in that they’ve piled up the losses while becoming increasingly competitive which they were in losing to Utah 76-75 on Thursday.
Apparently, Boyle’s club didn’t get the message.
“Cal is a team that’s playing better,” Boyle said. “They’re a helluva lot better than their record, I can tell you that. With that being said, this is a game we should have won, but we weren’t good enough tonight.”
“We did a lot of standing around,” said McKinley Wright IV. “The coaches had the perfect scouting report and we just didn’t execute.”
Colorado allowed the Bears to impose their plodding tempo, a task that became a lot easier with Cal getting off to a rare, fast start. The Bears led 10-4, 14-13 and after a long drought, recovered to lead 36-33 at the break. It was freshman Jalen Celestine, making his second start in place of Ryan Betley, that came up big for Cal in that regard.
Celestine scored nine of the Bears’ first 22 points–on three 3-pointers–to energize Cal while also taking the challenge of guarding Wright, a candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year. While Celestine sizzled, Wright was held in check, finishing with 13 points (on 3 of 11 shooting) and two assists.
Bradley seamlessly followed Celestine’s lead with 15 before the break, and 14 after including a critical 3-pointer with 40 seconds that increased Cal’s lead to 65-60. The junior guard was 9 for 17 from the floor and 9 of 10 from the line in surpassing the 20-point mark for the fifth time in his last six games.
Colorado (16-5, 10-5) blew past Stanford on Thursday for their ninth win in 11 games, a run that has them in good standing with the NCAA Tournament selection committee. But should the Buffs falter in games against USC, UCLA or Oregon in their final stretch, earlier losses to Washington (167 in the Pomeroy ratings) and Cal (134) will receive greater scrutiny as bad losses.
“It gives us our fifth (Pac-12) loss and we’re back in the pack,” Boyle said. “Thought we had a chance to compete for a championship. We’ve just got to figure out how win our next one.”
Beating one of the conference’s best teams after nearly a month of losing typified the season for Cal (8-15, 3-13). Not particularly talented by Pac-12 standards, nor tall or deep, the Bears have confounded by staying engaged, when other teams might have splintered. Fox deserves credit for that along with his staff that hasn’t hesitated to shake things up. Celestine’s emergence is one of those moves. After not playing in seven games, and never seeing more than 18 minutes of action in any one game, the freshman played 33 minutes against Colorado.
“We felt like in the game today we could use him defensively against McKinley Wright because he has athleticism and size and he’s got great balance and so defensively I thought he was really good,” Fox explained.
The Bears travel to Washington next with their Pullman stop to face Washington State on Thursday. The battle not to finish last in conference play comes Saturday in Seattle against UW.