By Matthew T.F. Harrington
BERKELEY, Calif. – Entering play Sunday evening the California Golden Bears had only felt the sting of defeat twice this season, with the pair of losses coming against teams ranked in the top ten in the country. Add to the likes of Wisconsin and Texas another team that may never again find themselves in the same sentence as these two perennial powerhouses of the hardwood; CSU Bakersfield.
Cal (10-3) fell behind early, then watched as Bakersfield clung to the advantage for dear life, pulling off the 55-52 upset win at Haas Pavilion for just their third victory of the season. Bakersfield (3-10) adds Cal as a strange bedfellow alongside previous conquests Delaware and Idaho State.
“I always talk about ‘You respect all your opponents’,” said Bears coach Cuonzo Martin. “Don’t get consumed with what’s on the front of the jersey or the record. I told our guys before the game, I wrote it on the board, all it takes is one night. Don’t fall asleep We paid for it.”
Cal suffered due to its inability to hold onto the ball, turning the ball over 18 times.
“That’s unacceptable,” said Cal forward David Kravish on his team’s ability to handle the ball. “That’s 18 possessions we didn’t have. That’s 18 shots we didn’t get to put up. They took advantage of it.”
Also of consequence was a lackluster effort from the charity stripe where the Bears went 14 for 24.
“You shoot 14 of 24 from the free throw line, that’s a problem,” said Martin. “It’s a matter of confidence and feeling good. The best way to feel good about your shot is to see the shot go in.”
The Roadrunners dominated California in the early going, yielding only two home field goals over the first ten minutes of play for a 17-5 Bakersfield lead. Cal managed ultimately went into the locker room trailing by ten points at 30-20 at the half.
“We came out flat in the first half,” said Kravish.”That’s been a pattern we’ve set for ourselves for a while now. We came out flat, we .put ourselves in a whole and then we think we can just turn it on.”
Kravish and his teammates don’t know what the cause is for their slow start, but didn’t want to put the blame on a short break for the holidays.
“IT’s not in our DNA,’ said Kravish. “It’s not in what we do in practice every day. The energy level has to be there every day. I don’t understand why. The energy was high.”
Over the first period, the Bears turned the ball over 13 times. They went 7 for 19 from the field in their second worst first half point output this season. Cal previously struggled to a 15-point first half in a 45-42 win against Wyoming earlier this month in an 8-turnover total victory. They scuffled with the shooting touch in that contest as well, hitting 6 of 23 attempts from the field.
Bakersfield’s center Aly Ahmed dominated in the first half, notching 14 points over the first 20 minutes to put him well on pace to break his career-high of 26. The junior from Alexandria, Egypt managed to bully his way in the post, dominating Christian Behrens in isolation. Over the final 20 minutes, the Bears managed to find the solution to stop Ahmed, limiting him to just 5 second-half tallies.
“It’s post defense,” said Martin. “Being aggressive, being physical. In the second half, we did a good job defending the post. That’s what it is. You have to be physical, be aggressive, set a tone, do your job. Do your work early.”
With Bakersfield’s star stymied and turnovers cut down from 13 in the first half to 5 in the second, the Bears slowly chipped away at the ten-point deficit. The home team found themselves trailing by only six at 50-44 with just over a minute left to play.
Kravish got the ball and put up a lay-up, then Sam Singer stole the inbound pass and dished the rock to Tyrone Wallace for the bucket to bring Cal within two at 50-48 with 1:11 left.
Wallace finished the night with a Bears best 17 points, but his foul on Brent Wrapp with 28 seconds left allowed the Bakersfield guard to net a pair of free throws and push the lead back to four points.
Wallace then hit a pair from the Charity stripe of his own, but Wrapp was sent to the line once again. He converted on one of two to keep Cal within three with 17 seconds left and the final game-tying chance. Jordan Mathews instead turned the ball over, forcing Cal to foul to regain possession.
Aly Ahmed hit both free throws to put Bakersfield up by five, but Wallace dunked home the final basket for the 55-52 final.
When piecing together the schedule, Martin wanted to use this game to build confidence heading into Pac-12 play against Washington. Instead, the Bears will be using January 2nd as a reset button.
They won’t be the only team looking to put non-conference play behind them though. The Huskies fell to Stonybrook in a monumental upset Sunday night.
“Washington lost a game at home tonight,” said Martin. “Every game is important. You take it one game at a time. That’s what I consume myself with. You want to win the game, you want to protect home court. But it’s back to the drawing board against Washington.”