By Morris Phillips
Are the Arizona Wildcats the favorite to cut down the nets and win their second National Championship?
If the Cal Bears wanted to be the voice of dissent regarding UA’s chances, they unearthed very little evidence on Saturday afternoon.
No. 2 Arizona (28-3, 18-2) looked the part, shooting a sizzling 62 percent from the floor in dispatching Cal, 89-61 at the McKale Center in Tucson. It didn’t matter that Arizona was playing its fifth game in 10 days, or that they had little to play for after clinching the Pac-12 regular season title on Tuesday at USC.
But what may have most impressive was the Cats put up 89 points despite having to deal with Cal’s plodding pace, and a couple of impressive, but short-lived stretches of play by the Bears.
How’s that possible? Make shots, and Arizona did that in bunches.
Oumar Ballo, the transfer from No. 1 Gonzaga, led the Cats with 16 points on 7 for 7 shooting from the floor. Ballo was the biggest piece of Arizona’s octet of reserves that combined to shoot 18 of 24 from the floor and 7 for 7 from the foul line.
Those bench contributions were the biggest indicator of the hosts’ ability to impose their will. The team picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 before the season literarily outplayed expectations down to their 13th man. Coach Tommy Lloyd, who denied any celebrations prior to Saturday’s final buzzer couldn’t hold back his praise.
“These dudes are unbelievable,” Lloyd said. “What they gave me this year has inspired me to coach forever. They practice their ass off every day and they handle me being on them. It’s such a special group to be around.”
Cal was competitive for the game’s first six minutes, then a 9-0 run for Arizona gave evidence that the visitors were in for a rough ride. The Cats extended their lead to 36-17 on Christian Koloko’s layup with 4:21 remaining at which point the Bears settled in with a 14-4 run to end the half that had them within range, down 40-31 at the half.
But the second half saw Arizona shoot 65 percent and their crowd grow more jubilant with each made basket. Despite their starters playing sparingly UA led by 31 before winning by 28.
“We got a little fatigued and made some costly errors there in the second half defensively,” coach Mark Fox said. “Against a team with as much talent as they have, you cannot afford to do that.”
Jordan Shepherd led Cal (12-19, 5-15) with 16 points. Lars Thiemann had 12 points, five rebounds and Makale Foreman added 11. Thiemann was able to go despite being a gametime decision due to an injury, but starting guard Joel Brown was scratched due to a knee injury.
Cal opens the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday with their opponent to be determined after action concludes on Saturday night, with the Washington Huskies as the most likely opponent in a 7 versus 10 matchup.