As the California band hit the opening notes of the National Anthem on Tuesday night, both Cal men’s basketball and CSU Bakersfield stood to pay their respects to the flag. It was the opening night of the NIT and the No.1 seeded Bears were lucky enough to play another game in front of the home crowd that has supported them so strongly despite the team’s utter collapse late this season. Cal stood facing the north basket, and it was hard to tell who was who with all their backs facing the crowd. Charlie Moore was distinguishable for reasons of height, of course, as was Kingsley Okoroh.
But Ivan Rabb, the Bay Area native and lone star player on roster, was recognizable for entirely different reasons. Amid widespread speculation that he would soon declare for the NBA draft and commendation from head coach Cuonzo Martin over his “respect” for his teammates by not discussing NBA rumors, Rabb was not wearing his No. 1 jersey, but instead a Cal sweater and jeans. Shortly before game time, Rabb was announced to have a foot injury, with no further information given by the team. After watching his team get its doors blown off, 73-66, that was the way Rabb left Haas Pavilion for the season, and possibly the last time as a player.
“He’s had the issue with his foot,” said Martin. “I’m not sure (which foot), off the top of my head probably both of them, but I’m not sure.”
As the match opened, the Roadrunners seemed to have something to play for — and as Rabb’s mysterious absence loudly spoke, the Bears didn’t. Bakersfield forced turnovers on the Bears’ first three possessions of the night and got a huge block on the fourth. Cal found itself down 8-0 with 16:30 left.
Surrounded by three players who were all shorter than him, Okoroh missed two lay-up attempts in a matter of seconds. Maybe Rabb would have helped in that situation. Bakersfield scored on the following two possessions, and Kam Rooks was brought in for Okoroh down 12-3. Cal would subsequently airball a three.
Bakersfield’s Dedrick Basile hit his third three of the half, then his fourth a moment later. A bullet pass from Grant Mullins then bounced right off the hands of Roger Moute a Bidias and rolled out of bounds. With the next opportunity, Don Coleman took a lay-up that didn’t even get 10 feet in the air and had the follow-up blocked out of bounds, off him. It was tough to imagine this offense getting worse than it already was, but having your best player sit out a postseason game while your coach is rumored to have interest in another program can obviously do huge things for the psyche of a mediocre team.
Bakersfield was just getting the bang-bang plays that only come from playing harder than your opponent. Missed shots turned into hot-potato offensive rebounds and kick-outs for threes. Defensive breakdowns turned into frenzied traps and blocked shots. Up 38-18 with the half winding down, head coach Rod Barnes was still barking out plays and calling his players out for their mistakes. Martin looked stunned. As did his team.
Halfway through what was supposedly Cal’s culmination of a regular season’s worth of hard work, the Bears head into the locker room down 44-19. The Bears turned it over nine times, were blocked five times and shot 17 percent from the field.
Four minutes into the second half, a rare Stephen Domingo three brought Cal back within 20, 46-26. As if the white flag hadn’t already been raised, Cole Welle — who had played all of 38 minutes this season — was brought in to heroically stem the Roadrunner flow. He got fouled and missed both his free throws. Poetry.
Bakersfield began milking the Bears, and a combination in which they used nearly the entire shot clock on one possession, then got the offensive rebound and held it for another 30 seconds before draining a three as the buzzer again rang was particularly brutal. It was almost like the Bears were missing by far their best rebounder, and paying interest on the ripple effects.
Cal would at least wake the crowd up with a small run late, bringing it as close as six points, but the Roadrunners — led by Brent Wrapp — kept the Bears at bay. The guard scored all of his 11 points in the second half and made key passes late that got his teammates in position to score or get fouled.
The merciful final buzzer echoed through an empty Haas, and the cataclysm was finally over. The 73-66 loss stung, but felt oddly fitting, given how the the past two seasons have played out. After scoring bigger than it has ever scored in recruiting the summer before last, Cal used the astounding talents of Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb to achieve ugly first-round losses in increasingly meaningless postseason tournaments. Brown scored four points in his final game as a Bear, and Rabb somehow achieved even less in what could be his. While the future of Cal basketball looked so bright just two short seasons ago, squandered opportunity will be the predominant emotion for a team in flux on the stormy seas that no doubt lie ahead.