Three regionals had been announced during Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show, and Cal’s name still hadn’t been called.
Fifty-one teams were on the bracket, and the Bears still didn’t know if they were going dancing.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking,” said Justin Cobbs. “A lot of 11s go by.”
“I was getting nervous,” said Allen Crabbe.
“I felt it,” said David Kravish.
The nerves soon gave way to a huge sigh of relief. The Bears were placed in the “First Four” play-in game as a 12 seed in the Midwest regional. They will face fellow 12 seed South Florida on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. The winner will take on fifth-seeded Temple on Friday in Nashville, Tenn.
The Bears don’t know much about the Bulls out of the Big East just yet.
“I’m sure by tomorrow morning I’ll know enough,” Harper Kamp said on Sunday.
North Carolina is the top seed in the Midwest and Kansas is seeded second. Kentucky is the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
“I think we have a great chance to get far,” Cobbs said. “We’re just excited to be in the tournament.”
Being in the play-in game may be bittersweet, but a tournament berth was far from a sure thing for Cal. The Bears (24-9) were in first place in the Pac-12 for most of the season, and as of two weeks ago looked to be a safe bet to make the Big Dance. But Cal lost its final two games of the regular season, failing to clinch the Pac-12 title.
After the Bears beat Stanford in Thursday’s quarterfinal, eventual Pac-12 Tournament champion Colorado knocked Cal out in the semifinal on Friday night. Following the loss, the Bears were firmly on the bubble, with some projections shutting them out of March Madness all together.
The Bears’ 70-59 loss on Friday evening started off about as horribly as possible. Sixth-seeded Colorado (22-11) opened the semifinal matchup with a 12-2 run, as the Buffaloes looked about two steps quicker than Cal in the first three minutes, making five of their first six shots, including two 3-pointers.
But those weren’t the 10 points that cost second-seeded Cal the game. Late in the second half, the Buffaloes went on a 10-0 run that spanned four minutes. Down 13 with four minutes to go, the Bears were out of time.
“Offensively, we’ve gotten a little stagnant,” Kamp said. “We lost confidence we’ve had the entire year.
“We got nothing to lose now.”
Despite turning the ball over 11 times in the first half, Cal chipped away at the lead. By the time Cobbs sank a three for the final basket of the half, the Bears were down by just a point.
Kamp (six points, 2-of-8 shooting) scored a fastbreak layup to open the second half and give Cal its first lead of the contest. For the next 10 minutes or so, no team had complete control, and the lead was often very temporary.
Eventually, Colorado’s hot shooting and physicality won out. The Buffaloes shot 59.1 percent in the second half, and starting forwards Andre Roberson and Austin Dufault combined for 32 points.
“We didn’t have a lot of energy,” said Crabbe, who led all scorers with 18 points.
Senior guard Jorge Gutierrez (10 points, 4-of-10 shooting) made a layup at the 8:10 mark. The Bears did not score again until 3:51 remained, as Crabbe’s 3-pointer broke the 10-0 spurt. Crabbe completed a three-point play a minute later, but Cal would get no closer than seven points. The Bears couldn’t escape their .385 second half field goal percentage and 17 total turnovers.
Colorado, which earned the Pac-12’s automatic bid, was awarded an 11 seed and will take on UNLV on Thursday in the South regional.
No other Pac-12 team made the tournament — partly because of its lack of elite teams, also because of all the upsets in the conference tournament. First-place Washington was upset by Oregon State in the quarterfinals.
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