As far as opening Pac-12 play goes, Cal opened pretty well against No. 12 Arizona. The Bears fought their way to a sizeable lead early as they slowly opened up more and more of their improving offense.
But that couldn’t save them when it finally came time to close. For a Bears team that prides itself on defense, the Wildcats beat them up inside for 46 paint points and won 67-62 behind Cal’s inability to consistently defend the interior without fouling. After winning 27 straight in Haas, Cal has now began a two-game streak in the opposite direction.
The Wildcats come from the land of the desert, and Bears’ state is stricken with drought — but early on, this contest was a game of floods. After falling down 6-4 in the early goings, Cal embarked on a 15-0 run that would last over six minutes and through nine straight Arizona misses.
What was so impressive about the tear was the team’s lack of reliance on Ivan Rabb amid the offensive fireworks. The sophomore was getting doubled both on and off the ball, and the Wildcat rotations were quick enough to clog any pass that he could conceive. Instead, the Bears looked to the perimeter, and freshman Charlie Moore, who hit a three to get the run started. By the time Rabb found the bottom of the net on a signature and oh-so-silky-smooth 18-foot jumper, the Bears had already scored 10 straight and were up 14-6.
But the well would soon run dry. Up 19-6, Arizona began its own 9-0 downpour by attacking the undersized Moore, and would run top-heavy pick-and-rolls to get their power forward Lauri Markkanen switched onto Moore after catching a screen from his point guard. Markkanen went to the rack a few straight times, and once Cal began to collapse onto him, the mid-range opened up for kick-outs.
But the Bears would recover and answer — this time led by Old Faithful, who was bound to figure it out eventually. Rabb began finding teammates out of the Wildcat double teams, forcing the double to come slower. He was also all over the glass, collecting seven rebounds in the first half — two of them offensive — to go along with his eight points going into the break. After preventing the double with his passes, he began eating isolations alive in the low post. He’d finish with 16 points and 16 boards, his fifth double-double of the season.
Also playing well offensively was Jabari Bird, who scored 10 points on his first four shots — two of which were crowd-rousing alley-oop slams, one of those with a foul to boot. His team rode into the break up 32-26.
But the wheels came off in the second half. Rabb, who was absolutely everywhere in the first, kept his team afloat when he was in the game but picked up his third and penultimate fourth foul with over 10 minutes to go, his team already down 46-43.
When their best player sat, the Bears defense, which was already more porous than usual, became an absolute sieve. They were unable to get any stop, especially inside and especially when faced with the acrobatics of Arizona star freshman Kobi Simmons, who finished with 14.
When Rabb finally came back in with six minutes to go, the 6-point Wildcat lead felt insurmountable. Every opportunity the Bears found themselves, they found a way to squander. Whether it was a litany of missed layups on no-pass offensive possessions, mishandling a rebound off a free throw and giving Arizona the ball back, or weak contests at the rim to turn what should have been emphatic blocks into three-point plays, the Bears weren’t ready to beat the Wildcats.
And for now, that’s not a huge deal. Arizona is a perennial powerhouse, and Cal is still figuring out what team it needs to be. But in pursuit of changing their identity to something a bit more modern, this game gave evidence of a squad that had forgotten their proud defensive roots.