Aaron Gordon scooped up the loose ball and coasted down the court. Jogging half-heartedly toward the cup, Gordon glanced behind him to ensure his path was clear. Richard Solomon was in pursuit but had no chance of catching the streaking Gordon. Secure with the space behind him, the freshman sensation twisted around and slammed home a reverse jam, prompting head coach Mike Montgomery to call timeout. Gordon ran back with a grin as wide as the Grand Canyon, tongue wagging from side to side.
Gordon’s emphatic slam capped off an 8-0 run for the Wildcats, who then led 21-14 with 10:45 left in the first half. The deficit, in a vacuum, wasn’t insurmountable, but Gordon’s reaction and the energy in the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., seemed to indicate that it was all but over. In a game that felt like a fat serving of revenge for Cal’s upset victory over the then-undefeated Wildcats on Feb. 1, Arizona whipped the Bears, 87-59, on Wednesday night.
There wasn’t too much at stake for Cal (18-10, 9-6 Pac-12) in this one. Before the game, the Bears stood as a solid NCAA tournament team, and the loss to No. 3 Arizona (26-2, 13-2) wasn’t going to change that. Their true tests come over the next three games, against three teams — Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — with varying chances at making the Big Dance.
Arizona, on the other hand, had everything to lose with the potential defeat. ESPN’s bracketologist Joe Lunardi slated the Wildcats as the No. 1 overall seed prior to the game, and their play on Wednesday was fitting of such a distinction.
They trailed only for the briefest of moments, as Cal jumped out to a quick lead before the first television timeout. Arizona grabbed the lead back eight minutes into the game on a Rondae Hollis-Jefferson dunk, assisted by TJ McConnell.
McConnell set up his teammates all game, racking up six assists to go along with his 13 points. Two possessions after his dime to Hollis-Jefferson, McConnell poked the ball away from Solomon and found Nick Johnson for a slam dunk, giving the Wildcats a five-point lead.
It was essentially all Arizona from there. The lead was 15 at halftime and stretched to 20 before the first timeout of the second half. Cal made it somewhat competitive, embarking on an 14-2 run to draw within eight. Justin Cobbs, who finished with 12 points and two assists, sank an and-one jumper and converted the free throw to bring the Bears within 11. Cobbs then found Tyrone Wallace open on the wing for an open 3-pointer. Down eight points with 12 minutes left, the Bears had given themselves a fighting chance.
But the run appeared to sap all of their energy; the Wildcats almost immediately pushed the lead back up into double digits, converting a layup on the next possession and scoring the next eight points. Suddenly, Arizona led by 13, and the Bears were done for the night.