There’s 10 seconds left on the game clock, the game tied at 75, and Charlie Moore cuts again into the paint. He’s had struggles scoring all night — all the Bears have — and as he spins toward the hoop, there are four hands from two red jerseys in his face. The true freshman seems to toss up a prayer — half shot and half what-the-hell — and his team and the Haas Pavilion alike prep for a dreaded 3rd overtime. But, out of nowhere, Jabari Bird soars in to grab the pass and slam it home, to complete the impromptu alley-oop, score his 10th point of the five minutes of double overtime and his career-high 26th overall, and give his team the hard-fought victory over Utah, 77-75.
“I got through the middle of the lane, and I saw him hard-cut,” recalled Moore.
“That lane opened up like the Red Sea,” laughed Bird.
And a miracle of biblical proportions this Bears victory may have very well been.
Cal roared to an 8-0 lead just over two minutes in. The Bear defense held incredibly strong, especially inside, against a Utes team that simply could not rely on the three-point shot. And when Kameron Rooks backs down his man and scores, you know things are going Cal’s way.
Another Bear steal added to the lead, and further highlighted the inability of Utah to climb back from a sizable hole. There just comes a point where you need threes to survive in this conference, and Cal was able to exploit the Utes’ deep-shooting disablement. Cal forced nine total turnovers over the game’s first 12 minutes.
But sloppy play would allow not only three straight Utah buckets, but three straight Utah uncontested attacks at the rim, and beckoned Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin to burn a timeout up 30-24. Moore would quiet the storm a bit with a jumper, and rise his own storm in Haas with a beautiful steal-lay-up combination that sent his team into halftime up, 34-26.
Utah made great halftime adjustments, though, and began working the ball deeper into the paint and increased passing within a few feet of the rim to mistime the contests of the Cal bigs, and it worked well, leading to three straight inside buckets. The offense without Moore or Ivan Rabb in had just gone over four minutes without scoring to boot, and up only one point, Martin’s team was bleeding.
And as the game hung in the balance, it was, shortly put, time for the better team to prove itself. The ball was given to the youngest Bear, and Moore knifed inside as the game clock dipped below 10 seconds in regulation, and drew free throws to potentially take the lead.
The first was perfect — tie game. The second rimmed out. Off to overtime we go.
Still locked in a tie after over four minutes of overtime play, the Bears were bailed out by Bird, who hit a deep two-pointer with 22.5 seconds to go to put Cal up 62-60. But the Bears squandered yet another opportunity with an airballed Stephen Domingo three, and let Utah score to force double overtime.
And when the team needed someone, ideally Rabb, to step up, it was instead Bird. The senior scored 10 points in the last 2:40, hitting two threes before providing the dagger alley-oop jam. But while Cal left Haas victorious on this night, it still missed eight of 20 free throws, and let Utah hang around far too long. The Bears can celebrate a good win on their home floor, but will need to fix up their serious holes if they want such a prayer in the tournament. There will be no Exodus when the Ides of March are upon them.