With 13 seconds left in overtime, Charlie Moore struts across halfcourt. Brimming with confidence, it’s hard to guess that the freshman had missed a timely free throw just a few moments earlier, or that his team gave up nearly every single lead it built for itself, no matter how secure it looked, against Louisiana Tech — a foe who had no business challenging the Bears in their well-protected den, let along vanquishing them in it.
But Cal men’s basketball’s littlest cub was watching the team’s resident grizzly, sophomore Ivan Rabb, line up at the free throw line to ice a game that had gone on far, far too long.
And that’s how the Bears got to 24 straight home wins — beating the Bulldogs, 68-59. But seriously, it was way closer than that.
After starting the same lineup from Cal’s last game against another Pelican State foe (Moore, Grant Mullins, Roger Moute a Bidias, Rabb and Kingsley Okoroh), head coach Cuonzo Martin made the first of many substitutions he would eventually make and brought in guard Sam Singer.
In an attempt to keep his best seven or so players fresh, Martin frequently played guys for only a couple minutes at a time. And while it did seem to help in that regard, he sacrificed a lot of built-in rhythm and flow that comes with playing for a while — especially on offense.
Rabb and Moore carried nearly all of the offensive load early, combining for 24 of the Bears’ total 31 first-half points, and the team looked well-equipped to set up its two best weapons. Singer sharing the court with Moore worked especially well because it allowed both guards to do what they do best: Singer could pass and Moore could score.
But the Bears struggled all night offensively whenever their dynamic duo wasn’t on the court. Martin tried his best to keep at least one of the two in every lineup, but sometimes that just won’t be the case — and having only two players that scare teams defensively just ain’t too great an omen anyway.
After fighting for a bit of a lead early, Moore hit an acrobatic layup to give Cal a 31-22 lead with only two minutes to go in the first half. The offense stalled from there, though, partially due to Tech’s full-court press, while the defense got pick-and-rolled to seven straight Bulldog points, and the Bears went into the half up only 31-29.
It took the Bulldogs hitting a three to take a 38-35 lead in the second half to convince the Bears to start feeding their beast, Rabb. He hit a quick bucket, then found Okoroh on a drive for an assist a couple of possessions later. He then grabbed a defensive rebound and hit the following jump shot to put Cal back up, 41-40. This is what carrying a team looks like.
The sophomore Preseason All-American is, quite frankly, playing out of his damn mind. Sure, it was just Louisiana Tech, and the tallest player he had to face was 6-foot-9-inches. But there just aren’t many collegiate big men who can score down low like he can, genuinely defend every position on the court at any spot on the court, offensively and defensively rebound and run the floor like Rabb’s doing right now. His beefy statline — 25 points, 13 rebounds and two assists — still can’t quite do justice to the impact he has.
“My goal today was to finally put two halves together,” he said with a smile.
Well, it would take five minutes more than that on this night. And when Rabb’s team went into overtime looking a little more pissed than it usually does, there was no doubt who was going to carry them to the finish. Rabb and Moore played all five minutes of overtime, and the Bears outscored Tech 11-2 in the period.
“A hard-fought win,” Martin said. “I knew it would be tough — I didn’t know it would be that tough.”
But the Bears would strut off their home floor victorious, thanks in no small part to its two brightest stars: one big and blooming, and one little, but budding.