Down 37-32, it seemed like the Cal men’s basketball team could not break the lead that No. 12 Arizona had established. Calling a timeout with just 14 seconds to play in the first half, the Bears had one more chance to draw up a play to get them closer to the Wildcats than they had been in the eight minutes of play leading up to this moment.
Pass to Jaylen Brown. Brown to an open Jordan Mathews in the right hand corner of the court. Mathews with the ball in his hand.
And all of a sudden, the gold-emblazed home team found itself going into the half only down by two. And it was this team led by Mathews, who had the highest-scoring game of his career with 28 points, scoring 20 in the second half alone, that came away Saturday with a huge mob of gold on the court and a 74-73 upset win.
“This is a game we expected to win, wanted to win. It’s a big moment,” Brown said. “We won today, the sky’s the limit. Great one for us, great crowd. We are going to take that one with us and keep it going.”
In the opening half, the Bears’ (14-6, 4-3 Pac-12) ability to break ahead was not quite as apparent. The two teams traded baskets for most of the opening 10 minutes, and despite a bucket by freshman forward Ivan Rabb to open up the scoring, the Wildcats (16-4, 4-3) eventually broke away from the Bears with the assistance of seven consecutive points from forward Ryan Anderson, leading the way to a 13-9 advantage. Anderson had 10 points in the first half.
The tide of the game appeared to be changing in favor of the Bears who have yet to lose at Haas Pavilion, when Mathews scored a three-pointer after two consecutive missed shots and Cal grabbed the ensuing offensive rebounds. The shot forced the Wildcats to call a timeout and gave the Bears a 15-14 lead.
The well-used time out gave the Wildcats the surge they needed to come back into the game with more than 10 minutes left to play in the half. Cal continued to miss shots, making only one of its last six field goals with about seven minutes to go, while Arizona kept scoring, finding its biggest lead of the game, 22-16. This was followed by a solid two-minute stretch with no scoring from either team, including two missed free throws by Brown that emphasized the Bears’ struggles to find the net in the middle of the first half.
It appeared that the Bears would be unable to go into the half with the close game that they had hoped for when guard Gabe York hit a quick three-pointer for the Wildcats, putting Arizona up 37-32.
Before the half was over, however, Mathews made his shot and led the way to an excellent offensive second half that the team was missing in the first.
Bird kept the three pointers going for the Bears as he drained one for the first basket of the second half. A big, slamming block by Brown, who scored 15 points in the game, saved a breakaway basket allowing the Bears to continue to prohibit the Wildcats from scoring at all early in the half.
Arizona’s first points in the half didn’t come until there was 15:40 left in the game with a jumper by York, helping to close in on the Bears’ 43-39 lead, which they held despite both of their bigs, Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks, both already having four fouls. Consecutive three-pointers by Mathews were almost negated when guard Kadeem Allen returned the favor a minute later by shooting a three of his own, closing the Bears’ lead to just four. Allen finished the game with 13 points and seven rebounds.
But it was the defense in the second part of the half that kept the Bears’ lead just barely alive, holding the Wildcats to just 44 percent shooting, compared to 57.1 in the first half. As Cal began to have difficulties on offense toward the end of the game, the Wildcats found a way to light it up on offense aided by an 11-11 effort from the free-throw line.
A late surge by the Wildcats and a huge fastbreak by Allen tied the game at 66, but as commonly occurred in this game, Mathews managed to find an open three to return the lead to the home side.
A slip up by Singer gave the Wildcats a breakaway opportunity and a layup by Allen tied the game at 73. After the tie, Cal got an opportunity to put points on the board, but with Brown eventually making only one of two free throw opportunities, one shot by the Wildcats would most likely have taken the win away from the Bears.
But on this day, Brown’s free throw was enough, as a missed shot by York on the way to a defensive rebound by Mathews left the home team with just one point more as the time went out.
“We could have crumbled, but we did a great job,” Mathews said. “That’s what separates some teams from others, showing the ability to grow as the season goes on.”