With 29 seconds left and down, 61-59, there was only one option for Arizona.
Coming out of the timeout, senior guard Gabe York curled around the deep screen to hit a wide-open 3-pointer.
In the most high-stakes game of the season, in front of hostile fans and against a reeling Arizona (23-7, 11-6) team, No. 25 Cal failed to take a victory back to Berkeley, falling to No. 18 Arizona, 64-61.
Cal (21-9, 11-6 Pac-12), after finally climbing its way back into Top 25 polls, headed to Tucson, Arizona with a perfect 18-0 home record and seven straight wins to its name, the second-longest active streak in the country behind Kansas.
The Bears opted to push the pace from the opening tip, jumping out to a 14-6 lead when guard Jabari Bird nailed a three in transition as Arizona head coach Sean Miller called a timeout.
Cal quickly built a 19-10 lead, buoyed by a handful of offensive boards and the Wildcats’ soft interior defense. As dominant as the Bears’ early offense was, Cal was just as efficient on the other end of the court, forcing the Wildcats into long, off-balance jumpers and holding the Pac-12’s third-best offense to 32.1 percent from the field in the half.
But what the Bears giveth, the Bears taketh away.
After a nearly flawless start, foul troubles emerged in all their fury for the Bears, with centers Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh picking up a handful of early personals. But although the Bears could temporarily make do without a big, forward Jaylen Brown’s second foul with 11:21 to play in the first half proved vital.
With the freshman phenom on the bench, Cal’s offense struggled to maintain its rhythm, proceeding to go one-of-10 from the field and scoring only 10 more points in the period. The Bears’ fragile lead would have disappeared altogether if not for an equally stagnant Arizona team. Cal took a 29-25 lead into halftime, despite some confusion at the buzzer when the refs missed a goaltending call on a last-second layup attempt from Bird.
But the Wildcats seemingly found life during the break, quickly tying the game on a tip-in from forward Ryan Anderson and then seizing the lead after an attempt high off the glass from York found net. Before the ball had even left the guard’s hand, Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin began to seethe on the sideline, calling for a timeout as soon as the shot fell. Unfortunately for the Bears, York, who was held scoreless in the first half, began to find his own rhythm in the second, rattling off eight points in less than seven minutes to give the Wildcats a 39-37 lead.
By this point, Cal hadn’t tallied an assist in more than 14 minutes, as whatever spark it found on offense in the first half appeared to be long gone. The Bears, falling victim to sloppy turnovers and a swarming Arizona defense, embarked on nine straight possessions without scoring a basket until a putback from forward Ivan Rabb made the score 43-42.
Rabb, whose relatively limited usage on offense has been much-maligned, helped pick up the slack for the Bears on an off night for Brown, punctuating a 15 point, 13 rebound night with a 3-pointer late in the game — his first attempt from distance all season.
Though Cal’s defense did its best to stymie the Wildcats, it was unable to cool off a scorching York, whose 19 second-half points and late-game heroics sealed the win.