By Morris Phillips
A year after the onset of COVID-19, and the abrupt departure of sporting events across America, the mindsets of the Cal Bears and Colorado Buffaloes heading into their Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal had similar themes.
A year ago, the youthful Bears ended their season with a win–against rival Stanford no less–and the Buffaloes were left with the sour taste of an upset loss to 11th-seeded Washington State.
Great memories for Cal, bad memories for Colorado, and the overwhelming unlikelihood that both teams would leave Las Vegas this year with the same emotions.
Colorado, despite an awful start–and bunch of resistance from Cal–held on to beat the Bears, 61-58 and advance to the tournament semifinals against USC on Friday night.
“You got to figure out a way to win when you don’t play
your best, we did that tonight, and we weren’t at our best,” CU coach Tad Boyle said. “And again Cal had a lot to do with that and I’ve got great respect for what Mark Fox is doing. They have had a rough year in terms of wins and losses, but, man, they have been in every game and tonight’s another example.”
“They didn’t give up and they made it hard on us.”
Remarkably, in the 23 years of the Pac-12 Tournament, only two 11th-seeded teams have managed to win games–Washington State last year against Colorado, and Cal in their opener on Wednesday also against Stanford. Given that, being 11th in the Pac-12 isn’t a harbinger for success, and it wasn’t again Thursday. After both teams waited an additional hour to hit the floor while USC and Utah battled through two overtimes, a sloppy game broke out. In the end, the Buffaloes’ defense reigned supreme, as they held Cal to 38 percent shooting and stopped leading scorer Matt Bradley dead in his tracks.
With Bradley shadowed by 6’3″ master defender Eli Parquet–along with a host of others providing double teams–Cal’s leader missed his first six shots as the Buffs built a double-digit lead with 11:41 remaining. Bradley would find some light down the stretch and finished with 10 points, but Colorado’s strategy was a success: take Bradley away, and force his teammates to respond, which never really happened.
“They trapped him on ball screens on the wings as well, and so we went to some isolations for him, and I thought that a couple times we didn’t come, on the pass out we didn’t come meet the ball,” coach Mark Fox said of the defense against Bradley. “I think that he finally got a little bit of rhythm in the second half. I probably played Matt… 38 minutes last night was a lot… and in hindsight I probably should have tried to save a couple minutes on him last night because I thought he looked a little fatigued today.”
“But I won’t be critical of our players. Execution in that situation wasn’t as clean as we wanted, but I thought our intent and our decision was the right way.”
Cal led for the game’s first 16 minutes after a 7-0 start to the game. But the Buffs missed good looks as often as Cal forced bad ones, best referenced by McKinley Wright IV’s poor start in which he missed six of his first seven shots. Once Jabari Walker converted a 3-point play, and 7’0″ Dallas Walton surprised everyone with a 3-point shot on the ensuing possession to put the Buffs up 20-16, they took control.
Cal trailed 61-52 with a 1:05 remaining, and then managed a desperation run in which Jalen Celestine scored six, quick points and Makale Foreman could have tied the game with a 3-point shot with five seconds to go. But Foreman ‘s shot bounced away and third-seeded Colorado survived.
“That’s his shot, he hits that shot all the time and when I see it I thought it was going to be good, obviously it didn’t go in but he shoots that shot all the time and that’s a shot that we like for him to take,” Grant Anticevich said of Foreman’s attempt to tie the game.
The Bears finish the season 9-20, their third 20-loss campaign in the last four years.