Cal's season, which looked relatively promising less than a month ago, spiraled steadily downward until ending with a disappointing 54-46 loss at Colorado Saturday afternoon in Boulder.
The Bears were 18-6 overall and 9-3 in the Pac-12 after winning impressively at Arizona State on Feb. 8. They were ticketed for no worse than a four seed in the Pac-12 Tournament, and most bracket experts had them around and eighth seed in the NCAA Tournament. But Saturday's loss was their fifth in six games and now with respective records of 19-11 and 10-8, they are fifth seeded in the upcoming conference tournament (no first round bye), a long shot for the NCAAs and no lock for the NIT.
Against Colorado the Bears played with much more enthusiasm and intelligence than they had shown in the distressing 74-44 loss at Utah Thursday night. They held the Buffaloes to more than 22 points below their season average and kept their top two scorers pretty much contained. But for the second consecutive games the Cal offense all but disappeared, and when it mattered most Derrick White and Xavier Johnson came through for the winners.
Hitting just 15 of their 55 field goal attempts, an anemic figure of 27.3 per cent, Cal was held under 50 points for the second time this season. The first was Thursday night.
Colorado's defense was certainly a factor, but the Buffs were not the suffocating deniers that Utah had been. The Bears had their share of good looks at the basket, but the ball just was not finding the net.
"The key offensively was we just couldn't get shots to go," Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said after the game. "I thought the energy was there. I thought we competed well. Just couldn't get the shots to do down."
Ivan Rabb, who had been so neutralized by Utah he attempted just three shots and missed them all, was considerably more involved. He finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds for his 16th double-double of the year. Jabari Bird also had 11 points for the Bears and Grant Mullins added ten.
But Johnson and White, who combined for 16 of Colorado's final 19 points, were too much for Cal down the stretch. White's eye-popping three-pointer, launched just inches from the out of bounds line with 20 seconds left and shot clock expiring, gave Colorado six-point lead and ended Cal's last faint hope.
"He was a difference maker on the floor," Martin said of White, who finished with 17 points, and four assists. "He's a big time talent and when knew going into the game that he's the one guy who can make plays. We did a good job of defending guys, White just made plays. He's a special talent."
The Bears led much of the first half and were up 25-22 at intermission despite hitting just 30 per cent from the floor. But it was a period of missed opportunities. Colorado is thin in the front court and two minutes into the game 6-9 Wesley Gordon picked up his second foul and was taken out. Two minutes later his replacement Tory Miller also went to the bench with two fouls.
The Bears played the rest of the half with a decided height advantage, but because of ineffective shooting, could not capitalize. They were able to build a five-point lead late in the half, but just before the buzzer Johnson, who would finish with 19 points, hit a jumper, which was in effect the beginning of Colorado's comeback.
The Buffs pulled even early in the half, and the teams swapped the lead until but the Bears held them off until it was 37-37. Then Johnson scored five straight points and Colorado led 42-37 with 7:38 left.
Cal got within one at 4:04 when Mullins hit a short jumper just inside the free-throw line, and the Bears had a couple of chances to go ahead. But after two empty Cal possessions, Colorado's Dominique Collier hit his second three-pointer of the game to restore the four point advantage at 2:37 .
Johnson made it a six-point lead, and again the Bears came up empty on the offensive end. Their last hope was when Bird was fouled on a three-point attempt with 49 seconds left. He hit all three free throws Ã¢â‚¬â€œ something that is never easy to do Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but then came White's improbable final trey and it was over.
Cal had seemed to be coming out of its three-point shooting funk in the first half, when the Bears were 3-for-7 from long range. But they were just 1-for-8 in the second half and are 8-for-46 over the last three games.
Freshman point guard Charlie Moore, who was limited to 17 minutes because of foul trouble, continued his late season decline. Moore missed all six of his field goal tries, did not attempt a free throw, had one assist and turned the ball over three times. In the last six games he is 9-for-45 from the floor (20 per cent), including 1-for-15 beyond the arc.
The slump coincides with his injuring his hip at Arizona State, but Martin did not think that was a factor. He believes that the length of the season, as well as the quality of competition, has caught up to him.
"I think it's fatigue setting in, and the way teams are defending him," Martin said. "He's a little guy who battles and competes but when he gets around the rim you've got 6-5 guys, 6-11 guys that's not easy to get a shot."
One bright spot for the Bears was the play of Don Coleman off the bench. A whirlwind of energy and excitement, the guard scored six points and grabbed five rebounds in ten minutes .
"He's in an attack mode," Martin said with a chuckle. "When you pass that ball to Don you know where he's going with that basketball, straight line and take it to the rim. Don has one thing on his mind and that's to score which is a good thing. We've got to continue to work with him in some other areas, but he is aggressive."
As the fifth seed in the conference tournament the Bears face 12th seed Oregon State on Wednesday , the same team they blew out of Haas Pavilion Feb. 24 76-46. That is a quick turnaround, but having seen the Beavers so recently Cal doesn't need much of a scouting report.
"Unless we watch the game they play against Oregon (Saturday ) and they are doing something different we haven't seen you've obviously got to go over that," Martin said. "But for the most part it's about what we do and how we are doing it."
The fact that whatever they have been doing hasn't been good enough, has put them in a bind. To get an NCAA Tournament bid, the Bears probably have to reach at least the final game in the conference tourney. Assuming the win over OSU, they would need to beat the same Utah team that thrashed them on Thursday and then probably top-seeded Oregon. A tough road to say the least.
If they fail to reach the NCAAs, the NIT is still realistic, although a quick exit this week makes them less attractive than they were even a week ago.
- With his two blocks, Kingsley Okoroh moved into sole possession of No. 2 in Cal's single-season blocked shots list with 64 this season. David Kravish, who set the single season record of 73, also was second with 63.
- Rabb's double-double was the 28th of his career and 12th in conference play this year.
- Mullins extended his streak to 18 consecutive games with at least one three-pointer.
- Stephen Domingo, who is in a season-long shooting slump, did not play for just the third time this season.