The edge pieces of a puzzle are our favorites — they attach to the fewest number of pieces and if we lost one, our puzzle would still appear mostly complete. The middle pieces, which connect with several others, though, are irreplaceable.
Junior Paris Austin is Cal men’s basketball’s most integral middle piece and Cal’s 80-66 loss to Arizona State is a reflection of his absence.
“We need our point guard back,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “Our offense was stifled. Matt Bradley is giving us everything he has, Darius (McNeill) is as well, but those guys aren’t point guards.”
While freshman Matt Bradley led his team with his career-high 19 points and sophomore Darius McNeill tallied up 16 of his own, their efforts weren’t enough to end the game on top.
Yet despite missing one of the squad’s most critical pieces and only true veteran player, Cal led ASU for the entirety of the first half and was even up by 14, 25-11, with 6:53 left on the clock.
While the Bears’ offense wasn’t bright at the start of the game, they defended the paint well, allowing Cal to build and maintain a sizable lead.
In the final three minutes of the first half, however, the Sun Devils began playing with the physicality and toughness that was expected of them from the start. Sophomore Remy Martin, coming in off the bench, and redshirt senior Zylan Cheatham helped ASU go on a run to close the deficit to just two points.
With 35 seconds left on the clock, freshman Jacobi Gordon’s turnover presented the Sun Devils with an opportunity to head into the locker room with a clean and even slate, or even go up ahead. After taking a timeout, Martin went up for a mid-range shot, only to miss it. The ball was quickly rebounded and sent outside the arc to sophomore Kimani Lawrence, who also failed to deliver, leaving ASU down 35-33.
The second half began on a sour note for the Bears. Freshman Connor Vanover’s foul allowed the Sun Devils to quickly tie the game, as Cheatham sunk both free throws.
“In the second half, we told our guys the first five minutes are going to be crucial,” Jones said.
And the first five minutes did prove to be important, though the teams remained matched at 41-41 with 16:18 remaining in the game. Dunks on both sides of the court kept things looking competitive, but Cal’s missed 3-pointers in three consecutive possessions were foreshadowing what was to come.
With over ten minutes remaining in the game, ASU eventually pulled away and expanded its lead to 14, as Martin led the way.
“What changed was Remy Martin started hitting shots,” Jones said. “We can’t keep the zone as tight, and now we have to go out there and guard him.”
ASU is a team whose size alone can intimidate other teams. But the player that pushed the Sun Devils ahead after trailing throughout the entirety of the first half was Martin — ASU’s shortest starter. Even though Martin came off the bench against the Bears, he started in nine of his 13 games this season.
Trying to adapt defensively to Martin’s hot 3-pointer streak, the Bears sacrificed securing the paint as they attempted to pressure Martin. The Sun Devils, now able to push through Cal’s defense, went on an 8-0 run, creating distance between themselves and the Bears.
Martin, who entered the game averaging a 19.5 shooting percentage from behind the arc and 38.2 percent overall, ended the game shooting 5-7 from a 3-point range and 9-14 total from the field. He ultimately recorded a career-high 24 points.
Although the Bears ended their first home conference game with a loss, they did have moments in which they showed valuable growth. Young Bradley’s leadership on the court, sophomore Juhwan Harris-Dyson’s contribution of three assists, sophomore Justice Sueing’s two steals, the team’s decreased number of turnovers (13) from its last game against UCLA and the team’s 33 rebounds — just one shy of matching ASU’s tally — hint a slow yet steady growth for Cal.
“There’s improvement, but it’s hard to feel good about that when you lose a game by 14 points,” Jones said. “They fed off of us not being able to score. Their offense got ramped up when they were able to get stops and we just don’t have the same flow offensively that we have when we have Paris.”
A previous version of this article misspelled Darius McNeill’s last name.