Moral victories may be for minor league coaches, but for the youngest team in the Pac-12, there was plenty to be happy about Monday night, even if the final result was a heartbreaking loss.
Cal men’s basketball pushed St. John’s to its limit under the bright lights of Barclays Center but couldn’t hang on to complete the upset, falling 82-79 for its second loss of the season.
The Bears and Red Storm exchanged blows late in the second half as the lead seesawed between the two teams. In the last four minutes, the lead changed four times before St. John’s pulled away for good with two minutes remaining.
Red Storm junior Shamorie Ponds looked every bit the preseason pick for Big East Player of the Year, scoring a game-high 32 points and racking up five assists.
Cal built off its win against Hampton and ran some of its better offensive sets of the season, and the ball had much more energy and life. The result of that movement was a 56.9 shooting percentage from the field, far and away its highest total of the season.
Sophomore Darius McNeill finally burst out of his slump, recording a team-high 21 points — the first time he has recorded 20-plus points since Cal’s game against Seattle last December.
After hitting just 3 of 9 3-point attempts in his first two games, McNeill drained 5 of 10 3-point attempts against St. John’s, bringing his percentage on the season up to 42.1.
Fellow sophomore Justice Sueing and redshirt junior Paris Austin were also instrumental pieces in the upset effort, scoring most of their points in the second half. Sueing put up 19 points and 9 rebounds, both of which were season highs, while Austin posted 17 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds.
Through the first 15 minutes of the first half, it was Cal that looked the part of a team destined for the tournament, starting the game by hitting its first six shots. St. John’s didn’t apply too much pressure on defense in the early going, surrendering easy looks at the rim.
McNeill was the Bears’ lifeblood in the first half, getting his team out to an early lead with some hot shooting. At the halftime buzzer, McNeill had a team-high 14 points while knocking down four 3-pointers.
In the waning minutes of the first half, St. John’s began to pick holes in Cal’s zone defense and emerged from its early cold spell. The Bears went on a four-minute scoring drought, and the Red Storm closed out the final eight minutes on an 18-6 run and led 38-31 at the half.
In the second half, Cal showed some fight and bucked its reputation of being a one-half team. With the help of some untimely offensive fouls by the Red Storm, the Bears erased the halftime deficit and tied things up at 48 apiece by the 12-minute mark.
A 3-pointer by McNeill with 10:37 remaining in the second half gave the Bears a 53-52 lead, their first advantage of the second half. A few minutes later, an alley-oop from Austin to freshman Connor Vanover gave Cal a 3-point lead and sent Barclays Center into a frenzy.
The Bears’ lead grew to as much as 7 points with about seven minutes remaining in the second half, but the Red Storm mounted their own run to get right back into the ballgame.
Cal hung around longer than expected, but the experience and starpower of St. John’s ultimately won out. The Red Storm outscored the Bears 17-11 over the last five minutes, and Ponds hit a deep 3-pointer from NBA range to push the St. John’s lead to four. The long ball wasn’t the dagger, but it was the ultimate demoralizer that all but sealed Cal’s fate.