Klay Thompson was in Haas Pavilion on Saturday afternoon to support his alma mater, Washington State, as the underdog Cougars went up against the Cal men’s basketball team. His team led by as much as nine in the first half, but just as Klay’s Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals and a 14-point lead on Christmas, Wazzu fell apart at the end. The Bears didn’t play great, or even that well — but just well enough to beat a bad team at home, 58-54, with a loud crowd behind them.
Cal’s early offense largely revolves around how the opposition chooses to guard Ivan Rabb. In this contest, the Cougars double-teamed Rabb every time he touched the ball. This forced the sophomore to pass it back out to the perimeter, for by the rules of mathematics, a double team leaves one man open. He had middling success in this endeavor, often finding shooters who promptly missed their shots. Jabari Bird, for example, played 17 of the 20 first-half minutes yet recorded no points on 0-5 shooting and 0-4 from 3-point range. That’s just not going to win ball games.
Because of that, Rabb was unable to establish himself offensively in the opening few minutes. And after Washington State was left scoreless for nearly five full minutes to begin the game, two quick Cougar buckets cut Cal’s 5-0 lead to 5-4.
But as the Bears can do, a consistently strong defensive presence from all five men on the floor allowed opportunities in transition, where scoring is much easier. A beautiful dime from Sam Singer led to an emphatic dunk from Stephen Domingo that finally woke up the Haas Pavilion crowd, opening a 9-4 lead that felt much bigger.
But this defensive dominance would not last. Five straight Cougar 3-point plays — four from behind the arc and one from an and-one 3-point play — revealed that a sizable hole had finally sprung in the Cal defensive dike.
A three and offensive putback in consecutive plays from Singer cut into the lead, but yet another deep ball from Robert Franks — who hit three from behind the arc in the first half without the Bears readjusting their defensive game plan on him — put the Cougars up, 24-17.
The Bears’ defense was bound to respond, though, and once the starters reentered the game, Cal held the Cougars scoreless for the final four minutes of the half. A Grant Mullins three and Rabb’s second assist allowed Cal to enter the break down only one, 28-29.
Another assist from Rabb to start the second half regained Cal the lead, but that lead would be tossed back and forth over the next few possessions.
Rabb, though, was beginning to take over. He scored seven of Cal’s first nine points of the second half, and the attention he drew in the low post forced the Cougars to leave others open. A prime example is the three that Domingo hit to cut Wazzu’s lead to 41-40, after the ball swung around the perimeter while all Cougar eyes were stuck on the Bears’ star big man.
And as the game began to hang in the balance down the stretch, it was two free throws from Rabb that put the Bears up 49-47 with less than five minutes left. It was a rebound from Rabb that secured possession later for Cal and, after drawing yet another foul on the block, another point from the charity stripe from Rabb that built his team’s lead to three.
Just as the Cal faithful were readying to begin the victory celebrations, though, Malachi Flynn hit a deep 3-pointer to tie the game at 50. The following three minutes — which would determine the outcome of a game in which Cal was favored by 16 points — therefore showed what type of team the Bears are.
After a free throw from Kingsley Okoroh and a stop on defense, true freshman Charlie Moore sliced into the paint for two. The Cougars would respond with a three, but with less than a minute to go, Bird hit his very first shot of the contest — a three from the left wing — to put Cal up, 56-52, which was also his 1,000th point as a Bear. Movie script kind of stuff.
“He’s a big-time player, so at the end of the day, we expect him to step up,” Rabb said.
Flynn would answer again, though, hitting a baseline jumper to cut the lead to 56-54 with 31.9 seconds remaining. A foul on Rabb on the inbound play would send him to the line, looking to ice the game.
The star missed them both. And if not for a charge call on the following Cougars possession, it could have cost his team the game. His robust 14 points, 12 rebounds and three assists wouldn’t have meant anything if Washington were able to capitalize better on his six-for-12 mark from the free-throw line. Better teams than Washington State will be able to. Cal needs to be ready.