TUCSON (Ariz.) - If the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee assigned its seeds based on determination and courage Cal would be close to a No. 1.
Unfortunately, results are all that matter to those folks, and the Bears are no cinch to get invited. They gave it all they had Saturday night, but could not catch ninth-ranked Arizona, which prevailed 62-57 before 14,644 screaming partisans at McKale Center. The final score, which ended their five-game win streak, was not the Bears' only loss of the night. Freshman point guard Charlie Moore injured his hip in the first half and left the game for good after playing just 12 minutes. Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game that he did not know when Moore would be available again, and while he is gone the Bears will be without their most dynamic play maker and third leading scorer.
The loss drops the Bears (18-7, 9-4) into fourth place in the league standings, just a game ahead of USC and Utah. The conference might not get five teams into The Tournament, so the Bears can't afford many more losses. They still have to contend with Oregon at home and the treacherous mountain road trip to Utah and Colorado.
Besides Moore's early departure the Bears were without leading scorer Ivan Rabb for much of the first period. The 6-11 sophomore picked up his second personal foul with 10:46 left in the half and went to the bench until halftime. The Cal offense went stagnant without its leader and Arizona went from a four-point lead to the nine-point margin they took into halftime.
Even when he returned the Wildcats were able to neutralize him. They have plenty of tall players and whenever Rabb touched the ball at least one of them, usually two, had hands up, not just in his face but over his head. He managed to take just seven shots, making two and scoring just four points, matching his season low.
But with all that going against them, the Bears stayed in the game, hanging around on sheer determination, they went to the floor after loose balls, battled for rebounds and made Arizona work for everything.
"That was two really good teams out there competing, playing hard," Martin said. "It was a chess match and a hard fought game. I thought both teams have it all both teams made plays, both teams had presence on the perimeter and at the rim.
At the start of the second half the 'Cats quickly pushed the lead to 11, but Cal never lost contact, getting big boosts from Jabari Bird and Kameron Rooks.
During one four-minute stretch Bird outscored the Wildcats single-handedly 10-8. And the points didn't come the way Bird usually gets them. Rather than shoot from long range, where he can be effective, Bird took it upon himself to take the ball inside and mix it up with Arizona's tall timbers. He drew a couple of shooting fouls, hit some short-range jumpers and jammed home a slam dunk.
"It was a point in the game where we were struggling to score, Charlie was hurt," said Bird, who finished with 19 points. "Ivan had some foul trouble, so I just decided to pick it up a little bit and get more aggressive. I had one of my threes blocked by one of their players and they were closing down hard on me so I just made a conscious decision to try to get into the paint and make some plays."
Arizona coach Sean Miller took note of Bird's feats. "Jabari Bird was great tonight. I don't look at us being irresponsible guarding him," Miller said. "I thought he made some challenging and tough shots. â€¦ That was one of the best games I've seen Jabari Bird play. He earned it, he really did."
That was no surprise to Martin. "Well, he is a senior and he is a good basketball player so I'm not necessarily impressed. That is what he is supposed to do. Like I said he is a good basketball player who has played in some high-level games on big stages. He can make shots and make plays. That is what we need for him to do for us to be successful."
For Rooks it was an emotional return to the gym where his late father became a Wildcat legend and was recognized in a pre-game video. He scored ten points, grabbed a team high six rebounds and even tossed an assist. He, too, took additional responsibility upon himself.
"I think I'm an offensive threat whenever I touch the ball," Rooks said. "Of course, I have to step up for him (Rabb) when he's in foul trouble. We don't have a lot of low post options.
"I thought he played a great game," Martin said. "I thought it would be a tough game for him, but he played great."
Down the stretch Cal twice got within four points, the last time at 55-51 with 2:20 left But the Bears committed some costly turnovers and when they fouled Arizona, the 'Cats hit their free throws.
"We have to take care of the ball and make the right decisions," Martin said. "But give them credit for doing what they needed to do by getting stops and making us turn the ball over."
The Bears played pretty good defensively themselves, holding Arizona to 13 points fewer than its season average. Leading scorer, 7-foot Lauri Markkanen managed just six points. Guard Allonzo Trier, who had averaged better than 15 points in the first six games since his return from a suspension, was shut out until he hit two free throws with nine seconds left.
But the 'Cats have plenty of weapons, including Dusan Ristic, one of the big men assigned to Rabb who scored 12 points and quick guard Kadeem Allen, who added 11. More than once Cal's defense made Arizona sap almost the entire 30-second clock, only to see the Wildcats score just as the shot-clock violation buzzer sounded.
Miller particularly liked the work of reserve guard Kobi Simmons, who was five for eight from the floor and hit both his three-pointers in racking up 13 points.
"It was a total team effort," Miller said. "But I would give the player of the game to Kobi. He was as valuable player tonight as anybody. He was great in the first half on both offense and defense. You love to see him play that many minutes (23) with no turnovers as well as having three assists. â€¦ He shot with confidence, played with confidence."
In Moore's absence, Grant Mullins and Sam Singer divided the point guard duties. While neither is as explosive as Moore, they both acquitted themselves well against the Wildcats.
"That is a guy (Moore) who starts for us and who makes shots for us as well," Martin said. "But Sam Singer is a senior who knows what is going on. I thought the minutes Grant Mullins played for us, I thought he did a great job at the point guard position. He did a fantastic job handling pressure. Again, if you lose a guy like Charlie Moore, a guy who averages 14 points a game, that is a big loss for us."
- Arizona has won 20 straight home games and 68 of the last 69.
- Coming off his 18-point effort against Arizona State, Mullins scored 13, including hitting the bucket that brought Cal within four points of the lead for the last time.
- This was Rooks first return to McKale Center since his father died last year. He was touched by the brief video. "I've seen it before on my recruiting visit," he said. "But it put a smile on my face. I love seeing him, and that's all I can see right now."
- The NCAA's selection show preview, which aired Saturday and let everyone know where they stand with the committee, had Cal an eighth seed and Arizona a three