The Bears were teetering on the precipice, and nobody was willing to steady the ship. A fast start gave the Cal men’s basketball team an early edge, but the Utes closed the gap quickly, eventually taking the lead.
Down two with seconds ticking down before the halftime buzzer, Cal guard Justin Cobbs dribbled aimlessly for almost the entirety of the shot clock, and with mere seconds left, bolted toward the rim. Instead of rising up for the layup, the gun-shy Cobbs kicked it out to Jordan Matthews on the perimeter, who didn’t have enough time to release the shot before the shot-clock buzzer. With Cal’s (18-12, 9-8 Pac-12) hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament quite possibly hanging in the balance, not even its leader could find the decisiveness to take the game into his hands.
“We’re just really having a hard time scoring the ball,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “I don’t know whether as the coach everything is on me.”
The slumping Richard Solomon — who finished the first half without a point — filled that role in Cobbs’ absence early in the second half, scooping a loose ball for a layup and sinking a 17-foot jumper on the next possession to give the Bears a 30-28 lead. It couldn’t be sustained.
Cal embarked on a late 8-0 run to grab the lead deep into the second half, but sloppy offense and a huge three by Utah point guard Brandon Taylor put the game just out of reach. The Utes bested Cal 63-59 at Haas Pavilion on Wednesday night, putting the Bears’ hopes of reaching the premier postseason tournament in a precarious position.
“I don’t know the answer — everybody’s not engaged in the game at all times,” said Cal guard Tyrone Wallace. “We’re letting our individual play affect how we play as a team, and it’s affecting defense and places it shouldn’t because our ultimate goal is to win.”
Neither team shot well in the contest. Cal’s dismal 39-percent shooting actually surpassed Utah’s 35 percent clip. Where the Utes (20-9, 9-8) found a way to edge out the Bears was on the offensive glass. Utah grabbed offensive board after offensive board, extending possessions and deflating Cal’s offensive momentum. All in all, the Utes turned 13 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points.
A Marko Kovacevic offensive rebound allowed the Utes to take a 31-30 lead with 14:05 remaining in the contest, as Kovacevic found Delon Wright for an easy lay-in.
Wright, who entered the contest averaging 16.4 points per game, failed to get it going scoring-wise for most of the contest. He had just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting, opting to distribute and rebound when his shot neglected to fall. His nine rebounds and four assists were essential for the Utes, especially down the stretch, as a Wright assist to Taylor on a fastbreak pushed the Utah lead to six with more than six minutes remaining.
Cal climbed back into the contest with a methodical 8-0 run that came almost exclusively via free throws. Up 50-48 with just more than two minutes remaining, the Bears had a chance to escape a tight contest and stay on the right side of the March Madness bubble.
But Wright sank two free throws to tie it, Taylor made two more on the next possession, and Utah suddenly had a 52-50 lead with the ball and 1:08 to go. Taylor dribbled upcourt slowly, and with 53 seconds left pulled up from three with Cobbs right in his face. The shot fell, and the Utes victory was essentially secure. Cal’s destiny, on the other hand, was anything but.
“I don’t understand it, personally,” Solomon said. “I don’t feel like we’re playing together as a team. Like Tyrone (Wallace) said, a lot of people are focused on their individual success.”