Cal's record fell to 9-3, and Virginia improved to 10-1.
"Great effort by both teams," said Cuonzo Martin. "I thought both teams played extremely hard, competed at a high level. It just went down to the wire, and I thought we had some costly turnovers."
Virginia coach Tony Bennett said, "You knew it was going to be physical. I told our guys going in this was going to be a good old-fashioned knuckle buster."
Both teams lived up to their lofty defensive rankings. Cal was 18 of 51 (35.3%) from the field, and Virginia was just 22 of 57. The Bears turned it over 13 times to just 7 for the visitors.
Freshman guard Kyle Guy was the key offensive threat for Virginia with 17 points, 14 in the second half. Senior star London Perrantes was the only other Cavalier to hit double figures with 14. Perrantes controlled the game for UVA.
Jabari Bird led Cal with 15 points, but he made just 5 of 15 shots, 4 of 12 from outside the arc. Sam Singer had an outstanding game with 10 points, 3 assists and just one turnover.
At the other end of the Cal spectrum, Charlie Moore struggled with decision making against the vaunted Virginia pack line defense. The freshman point guard was 3 of 14 from the field, with 4 assists and 4 turnovers.
Bennett elected to double Ivan Rabb just about every time Cal got the ball to him in the low post. The doubles came from the weak side, and they used a big man to perform the task. Rabb's major contribution was on the boards with 12 rebounds, even as he was held to just four field goal attempts. Rabb converted seven of eight at the line to finish with nine points.
"Just make the right play out of the double team," said Rabb. "When I didn't turn the ball over out of the double team, I thought I made good passes. I just don't think we got off as many shots as we wanted to."
"You have to make that next pass," said Martin. "You've got to be shot ready to make a play."
After the Bears opened up a 6-point lead at 29-23 early in the second half, Virginia exploded for a 17-2 run to take a 40-31 lead. After not making a three in the first half, the Cavalier run featured three makes from outside the arc. Martin called time to stop the bleeding. It appeared that the Bears were in big trouble.
Cal's scoring drought eventually reached 3:52. Kingsley Okoroh ended the dry spell by making a free throw, and Cal got a break when they grabbed the long rebound. Singer found Okoroh for a bucket, and after a stop, drove the length of the court to score and cut the lead to 4.
Bird nailed a three-pointer, and two Rabb free throws put Cal ahead 41-40. Virginia finally ended their six minute plus scoreless when Kyle Guy hit a jumper to regain the lead for the Cavaliers, and followed with an elbow jumper and then a three to make it 47-44 UVA with 4:35 remaining on the clock.
Okoroh converted a layup, and after a missed three, Bird was fouled driving to the bucket at the final media timeout. It looked like Cal would have a chance to regain the lead after the timeout, but after a long delay, the officials ruled that the shot clock had expired due to a clock malfunction and awarded possession to Virginia. Perrantes' jumper gave the Cavaliers a three-point lead.
"You have to respect the game, and if there is a malfunction in the clock, we came up short on the call. The call was made, you deal with it," said Martin. "I thought it was a tough call."
Singer tied the game with an and-one drive to the bucket to make it 49-all. Isaiah Wilkins converted his own old-fashioned three point play to make it 52-49 with 1:02 left. Bennett took a timeout, and Moore missed a long wing trey on Cal's possession. It was not a good shot.
Mamadi Diakite hit a dagger jumper with 24 seconds left to make it a five-point game. Bird nailed a trey from the left wing to cut the deficit to two, 54-52 with 18.9 on the clock. Two free throws by Guy completed the scoring.
This was Cal's final non-conference game of the season. The Bears will head into Pac-12 conference play with plenty of questions. They can certainly defend well, but they will have to improve offensively going forward.
Cal's next game will be on Friday, December 30 against the Arizona Wildcats at Haas. Game time is 8:00 p.m.