By Morris Phillips
At some point during Cal’s unprecedented 10-day break bridging the regular season and the Pac-12 Tournament, some teaching went on.
Coach Mark Fox, mindful of his team’s glaring defensive deficiencies, got demanding. Fox taught, the players learned, physicality was introduced, and at some point knowledge turned to belief for the conference’s lowest-seeded team.
“A teacher is only a good teacher if the students learn,” Fox said. “And obviously I did a terrible job of teaching our defense this year because it’s been awful. Tonight is what it should look like all the time.”
On Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Stanford found out first hand what had been learned in Berkeley. In a stunning reversal, Cal shut down the Cardinal on the interior, and answered two, lopsided losses to their rival with a wire-to-wire 76-58 upset win.
The 11th-seeded Bears (their lowest seeding ever in the Pac-12 Tournament) controlled the glass, didn’t get burned in the paint, then coupled that with a patient, and efficient offensive showing that was easily their best in a disjointed season that saw them lose 19 games. After Stanford ate Cal alive in the paint to the tune of 84 points combined in the two regular season meetings, the Bears muscled up and pushed back.
“We didn’t rebound it very well the early part of February, and slowly our rebound numbers have been improving,” Fox said of Cal’s 31-22 edge on the glass. “They bought into it, and I thought it carried over to the game today. We played very physical on the backboards today.”
Cal scored the game’s first six points and never looked back. They lead by as many as nine in the first half, and by six at the break. With Stanford showing some resolve, the Cardinal creeped to within one at 52-51 with 6:08 remaining. After Cal’s Joel Brown inexplicably missed a layup, Stanford gained possession looking for their first lead. But Matt Bradley blocked Lukas Kisunas’ shot and Ryan Betley freed himself for a 3-pointer at the other end. That started Cal’s 24-7 finishing run that saw them win going away.
“He’s known for doing that,” Andre Kelly said of Bradley’s rejection at the rim. “He’s an ultra competitor. He does that in practice all the time so it’s nothing special to me, but for you guys to see it is something cool.”
Bradley didn’t start in a move Fox declined to discuss. But the team’s leading scorer entered early and went on to lead Cal with 19 points, six assists and six rebounds. Kelly contributed 12 points, nine rebounds and Betley hit some timely daggers in a 13-point performance he squeezed into 16 minutes of floor time.
Jaden Delaire led the sixth-seeded Cardinal with 14 points, and Michael O’Connell and Oscar da Silva each had 12. Da Silva, the two-time, first team All Pac-12 performer suffered a leg injury previously and missed eight of his 12 shots. Ziaire Williams was unavailable due to a family matter in Los Angeles which means the Stanford freshman who is a presumed NBA lottery pick this summer may never face Cal as a collegian. Williams missed all three games this season between the schools.
This was only the fifth time the two Bay Area rivals have met in 23 conference tournaments, and the odds of them meeting in consecutive tournaments are less than 3 percent. Couple that with Cal’s win and last year’s 63-51 upset of Stanford, and the Bears truly grabbed a piece of rivalry history with the double play.
The Bears advance to a quarterfinal meeting with third-seeded Colorado on Thursday at 8pm.