By Morris Phillips
Cuonzo Martin’s decision to rekindle the St. Mary’s-Cal basketball rivalry went from good idea to bad idea about 14 times, equal to the number of lead changes in Saturday’s game that was well worth the 11-year wait.
Then, with 38 seconds remaining and the Gaels looking to build on their one-point lead, and both teams’ fan bases on the edge of their seats, the two rivals ditched their tendencies, a development that would immediately decide the game.
St. Mary’s turned impatient and predictable, and lost, while Cal went imprudent, daring and watched everything work out. Looking to build on the lead, St. Mary’s Joe Rahon dribbled hard to the hoop, but instead of passing out to a teammate for a potential shot, the Boston College transfer attempted to challenge shot blocking Ivan Rabb at the rim.
Rahon’s choice wasn’t the right one. Rabb swatted the guard’s layup attempt away.
On the other end, after a timeout, the Bears put the ball in Tyrone Wallace’s hands, but the team’s leading scorer was having an off game, missing 10 of his 12 shots. Regardless, Martin wanted the ball in his senior’s hands and Wallace’s decision to pass the ball to wide open Jabari Bird at the three-point arc was the right one.
Despite the team’s paltry 32.8 shooting from three, and Bird’s barely better 34 percent shooting from distance, the decision to go for three instead of two panned out when Bird buried the shot with 17 seconds remaining.
“We didn’t cover that right and Bird made a big shot,” Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. “He could have missed it, but he stuck it and so it got down to that. Someone is going to get a shot and they hit one and we didn’t. You can’t blame it on any one thing, but I know good teams make a lot of close games. Great teams don’t play many. And so we had a chance to separate a little bit when we were up five. If we had done a better job offensively, maybe we could’ve gotten it done without it coming done to the last shot.”
The five-point lead that Bennett referred to came with 10 minutes remaining. If the meeting of Bay Area rivals just 14 miles apart was one of the irresistible force versus the immovable object, both the force and object took major hits to their reputation on Saturday. The Gaels came in undefeated, averaging 78 points a game on 52 percent shooting from the field as a team. That offensive force didn’t move Cal–who turned a credible defensive effort sprinkled with occasional warts—holding St. Mary’s to 39 percent shooting after halftime, culminating with the Gaels missing 10 of their final 14 shots.
Many of those misses looked like Rahon’s final miss—at point blank range or at the rim—as Cal’s athleticism bothered the Gaels more than did the Bears’ overall defensive execution. Time after time, St. Mary’s carved an advantage using high ball screens, only to have Rahon or another ball handler find resistance once they got to the rim. The Bears’ bailout plan was the blocked shot, as Rabb’s critical block on the penultimate play was his fourth, and Cal’s 10th of the afternoon.
The Bears also stayed out of foul trouble—an issue for them in their first nine games—and kept the Gaels off the line. St. Mary’s took only four foul shots in the game, missing three of those.
When the Gaels attempted to tie the game in the final seconds, they fumbled the ball, didn’t get a shot off only to be bailed out by Tyrone Wallace’s foul attempting to reach a loose ball between the circles. That put Rahon on the line with a chance to tie, but the junior guard missed the front end of a one-and-one. Barely more than 30 seconds after they appeared to have the game in control, St. Mary’s was stuck with its first loss of the season.
Cal’s win was their first over St. Mary’s since December 1993 when Todd Bozeman’s Bears got past Ernie Kent’s Gaels at the Oakland Coliseum. In what had been a very lopsided, annually-renewed series favoring the Bears, the Gaels surprised Cal in 1988, 1997 and 2004 during a period where the meetings became more infrequent. Those losses were so concerning to Cal, that coaches Ben Braun and Mike Montgomery steered clear of Moraga and the Gaels.
In fact, Montgomery would go 18 years at Stanford and six seasons at Cal, scheduling the Gaels only twice.
So what was Martin thinking when he scheduled Saturday’s game against a program that has made four NCAA tournament appearances in the last eight years? Not much, he said, other than he welcomed the challenge, and the opportunity to get his young team some critical experience.
One issue between the schools, recruiting, would appear to be a non-issue currently. While St. Mary’s continues to enjoy its Australian pipeline, filling half its current roster with players from Down Under, the Bears under Martin appear committed to recruiting locally.
And this off-season that task will be a little easier since one of America’s largest and most prestigious public institutions doesn’t have a loss on its schedule at the hands of a tiny, Catholic college that’s hard to find even if it’s just over the hill from Berkeley.
Perception or competition. Martin appears to be on the side of competition when asked if he would schedule the Gaels again.
“I would (again schedule St. Mary’s),” Martin said afterwards. “Again you’re talking about quality of opponent. I think we need to especially when you have the type of energy and passion we had tonight.”