On a Friday night in Las Vegas, Cal men’s basketball fought for its postseason life with the odds stacked against it, battling against first-seeded No. 5 Oregon in the semifinals of the Pac-12 Tournament. The Bears were dealt a massive blow in the first minute and a half, losing their leading scorer senior guard Jabari Bird to an injury, and they were ultimately unable to overcome his absence. Cal fought admirably, trailing by just 2 points with 44 seconds remaining, but the Bears fell 73-65.
In Bird’s absence, senior guard Grant Mullins assumed the reins of the offense. Mullins put on a mesmerizing shooting display, leading Cal with 23 points on an ultra-efficient 7/8 shooting mark, including 5/5 from beyond the arc. Freshman guard Charlie Moore also made a significant scoring contribution, chipping in 15 points while shooting 5/11 from the field.
The Bears opened the game with a sequence that included a block from junior center Kingsley Okoroh followed by a three-pointer from Moore to give Cal a 3-0 lead. But on the next defensive possession, Bird took a hard fall, hitting his head on the ground on a block attempt. Bird was immediately taken off the floor and was ruled out for the remainder of the game shortly after.
Moore set the tone offensively for Cal early in the first half, pouring in 8 points, including two triples, in the first three minutes to give the Bears an 8-0 advantage. Oregon responded with a 9-2 run to bring the score to 10-9, leaving Cal with just a 1-point edge. Mullins was a bigger factor and kept the Bears’ offense afloat by shooting 3/3 from beyond the arc in the first half, all of which were created by his teammates penetrating into the paint, drawing defensive attention and passing to him for an open shot.
Two of Mullins’ triples came late in the first, in spite of the Ducks’ full-court press. As they have numerous times this season, the Bears initially struggled to counter Oregon’s heightened defensive pressure and even committed a turnover on the first possession. But Cal adjusted by slowing down and swinging the ball to the open man in order to settle into its halfcourt sets.
The Bears’ shortcomings in their halfcourt offense were largely a product of the Ducks’ stifling interior defense. Forward Ivan Rabb, who’s projected to be a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, had yet another inefficient shooting performance on a night when his team was desperate for offense. Rabb converted just one of his first eight field goal attempts, and he finished the game 4/12 from the field. Oregon’s tandem of 6’9 Jordan Bell, this season’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and 6’10 Chris Boucher gave the Ducks strong rim protection and finished with seven blocks between the two of them.
Entering halftime, Cal trailed 36-33, but Oregon stretched out its lead in the early minutes of the second period. As the Bears’ offense wilted, the Ducks pulled away and even led by as much as 13 points with about 13 minutes left in the game. Cal bounced back by putting together three consecutive baskets to cut its deficit to 6 points.
Down the stretch, the Bears were hurt by two critical moments, both involving guard Don Coleman. Coleman was first called for a flagrant foul attempting to stop a fast break, which gave Oregon two free throws and an additional possession. A few minutes later, Coleman scored inside before the whistle was blown. Though the play was initially called a blocking foul, the ruling was overturned and Coleman was charged with an offensive foul — his fifth and final of the game.
Down 67-65 with under a minute to go, the Bears failed to get the defensive stop they needed and committed a foul on a made basket, sealing the game for the Ducks. With today’s loss, Cal enters Selection Sunday with a slim chance at securing an NCAA Tournament berth. The Bears may have played their last game of the season, and now all they can do is wait and hope.
Kapil Kashyap covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]