It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times for Cal men’s basketball in its 2014-15 season.
Behind rising stars guards Tyrone Wallace and Jordan Mathews and forward David Kravish, the team kicked off a new era under head coach Cuonzo Martin with a 10-1 start, the program’s best since the 1959-60 season. Just as optimism about the team’s prospects started to emerge, the Bears dropped eight of their next nine games, with disappointing losses to Stanford, UCLA and USC. What followed, however, helped reinvigorate the spirit of Cal basketball: The team went on a five-game winning streak, during which it snatched victory from the jaws of defeat three straight times with game-winning 3-pointers against Washington, USC and UCLA.
Sam Singer’s game winner against Washington was what started the chain. With the team trailing the Huskies, 88-87, Singer looked to drive to the hoop for an easier shot, but a strong jab step created an opening from the top of the key. With five seconds on the clock, Singer let it fly from behind the arc, and the ball found the bottom of the net to give the Bears a 90-88 lead with four seconds remaining. There wasn’t enough time for Washington to set up for a proper shot, and the Bears escaped Seattle with a victory.
In the next game, at Haas Pavilion, the Bears were locked in a tough matchup against USC that came down to the wire. USC’s Jordan McLaughlin hit a free throw to give USC a two-point lead but missed his second, which put Cal in position for a scramble drill with 4.9 seconds remaining, during which Cal got the ball to Wallace. Having not even set his feet, Wallace drained a deep three from the top of the key to beat the buzzer and give Cal a 70-69 win. What followed was absolute mayhem: The stadium erupted, and the fans poured onto the court. The energy in Haas Pavilion was palpable, and the team finally gave fans something to cheer for again.
While not quite as thrilling as Wallace’s buzzer beater or Singer’s game winner, Dwight Tarwater’s three-point shot against UCLA with 20 seconds remaining was the culmination of an incredible series of victories for the team. The improbable shot by a player who averaged only about three points per game lifted Cal to another improbable victory.
The game winners provided an injection of life and excitement to a team struggling to succeed. Youth, injuries and poor play created a stretch where the losses against both stiff and weak competition added up fast. As scintillating as these wins were, however, when placed in the context of the team’s season, they represent only a small period of optimism about the team’s ability to show the sort of play on the court that it had failed to achieve. The victories weren’t enough to turn the tides for the program and instead were more of a blip on the radar in a season where the Bears failed to net even an National Invitation Tournament appearance.
While the Bears ended the season with a disappointing 18-15 record (7-11 in conference), the prospects for the team are at an all-time high. Martin’s work recruiting two of the nation’s most highly sought-after recruits — forwards Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown — has, if nothing else, revitalized the image of the program. The two recruits will play a pivotal role in helping Cal basketball take the critical step to establish itself as a legitimate contender amid the juggernauts in the Pac-12, namely Arizona, UCLA and Arizona State. It remains to be seen if the young Bears can turn the program around, but if they can, this series of victories showed just how exciting Cal basketball can be when the team plays with the sort of focus, energy and passion it exhibited in those three games.
Shiktij Dave is a sports reporter. Contact him at [email protected].