The Cal men’s basketball team began its season on the national stage by getting blown out.
On Wednesday night, the Bears ended their season the same way.
The 65-54 margin to fellow 12 seed South Florida did not tell the true story of the NCAA Tournament play-in game in Dayton, Ohio.
It took five minutes for Cal (24-10) to score its first basket, nearly another five minutes for someone other than Harper Kamp to make a field goal. By then, the Bulls (21-13) were up 20-11, well on their way to a Friday matchup with fifth-seeded Temple in Nashville, Tenn.
When Jorge Gutierrez’s jumper hit the rim, bounced up high in the air and fell in with just under nine minutes to go in the half, it appeared maybe Cal might mount a comeback.
Those were the Bears’ last points of the half.
“It’s tough,” Kamp said. “It’s hard to go out that way. We let up at some point. We stopped working as hard.”
Cal began its First Four tournament game at the University of Dayton Arena looking more like the team that lost three of its last four games than the squad that began the season ranked in the top 25 and slaughtered its first four opponents by more than 22 points a game. The Bears then, on national TV, got their first taste of elite competition, getting embarrassed by 39 points to Missouri on Nov. 22.
Wednesday’s first half was even worse.
Despite all the things Cal has worked on this season — all the improvement and maturation the players made and the chemistry and tenacity they developed — the Bears could not complete the simplest of basketball skills. They could not put the ball in the hoop.
Plenty of teams have struggled scoring against South Florida’s defense, one of the best in the country. But Cal’s anemic output in the first half was of monumental proportions. The Bears totaled 13 points. They were down by 23. Cal shot 5-for-24 (20.8 percent) in the half. South Florida’s 16 field goals exceeded the Bears’ point total.
“I didn’t imagine that happening,” said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. “We dug ourselves a huge hole in the first half and probably as bad as I’ve seen us play. We just didn’t seem to have energy.”
It was no surprise, really. The Bears have struggled against athletic, physical defenses all season — they lost to Arizona at home and twice to Colorado. Then they went up against a Big East defense that came in allowing just 59.2 points per game.
One of Cal’s first good offensive possessions came with 11:30 remaining in the second half. Allen Crabbe came around screen and knocked down a mid-range jumper. Unfortunately for the Bears, that cut the deficit to 24.
“We just didn’t have any energy,” said Crabbe, who finished 3-for-14 from the field. “And, speaking for myself, it just seems like I take too long to get into the game.”
Cal chipped away at the lead and battled back for a respectable final score. That the Bears actually won the second half means little. That the effort was still there is surely something to be proud of.
With 27 seconds left in his career, Kamp committed a foul. Down 16, the Bears had no reason to foul — South Florida was not even in the bonus. Maybe Kamp, who had 19 points, just wanted a little more time in his Cal career, even if it was just a few more seconds.
With 14 seconds left, Montgomery took out Gutierrez, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who shot 4-for-10 in his final game in a Cal uniform. The two embraced — the weary Cal coach and his first recruit.