Cal men’s basketball turned heads Saturday afternoon, and surprisingly, the team did so for good reason. The Bears didn’t just keep up with Oregon State but actually challenged the home team, leading for much of the first half and trailing by just a few points in the final couple minutes of the game.
While the game ended in Cal’s 12th consecutive loss and left the Bears still winless in conference play, the Bears showed signs of growth, development and promise that could potentially translate into a win during these final few weeks of the season.
Although team morale and self-efficacy could have been far below ground level, Cal started the game with a surprising level of energy and aggression, highlighted by sophomore Darius McNeill’s play. Getting off to a hot start, the guard was responsible for 7 of the Bears’ first 9 points, and McNeill would stay on fire for the rest of the half.
After freshman Connor Vanover’s made free throw, McNeill sank a jumper to get the Bears into a rhythm and give Cal its first lead of the game, 12-11.
Matching McNeill’s scoring prowess on the other end of the court, redshirt junior Tres Tinkle put up 13 points for the Beavers in the first half, carrying with him a level of patience the Bears don’t seem to have.
That kind of ball IQ can be attributed, at least in part, to training under OSU head coach Wayne Tinkle, Tres’ father.
The Tinkle family name isn’t the only one spotted more than once on the Beavers’ roster. Stephen Thompson Jr. and Ethan Thompson, sons of OSU assistant coach Stephen Thompson, fall right alongside Tinkle as the team’s leading scorers.
While Cal sophomore Justice Sueing sat out after two personal fouls, Vanover — who finally earned a well-deserved start — took some initiative, making his first field goal of the game with a well-executed layup. He would end the game by tying his career high of 15 points.
With Cal leading 25-20 and 6:15 on the clock, the Beavers needed to pick up the pace. The afternoon wasn’t feeling quite like Thursday night’s blowout loss to Stanford. After 3:34 without an OSU field goal, Thompson Jr. made a layup to cut the Beavers’ deficit to just 3.
But McNeill quickly made his way through the paint for a successful layup of his own on the subsequent possession.
A foul called on junior Jacob Orender, who saw a career-high four minutes in Wednesday’s game against Oregon, yielded 2 more easy points for the Beavers.
Despite McNeill’s aggression and accuracy, OSU took the lead after a couple jumpers from Tinkle and Ethan Thompson to close out the first half ahead, 38-32.
As many people would expect, Cal let loose for a bit in the second half, as the defense and offense both visibly crumbled a bit.
At one instance, 6’8” Tinkle tore down the court on a fast break, dodging 7’3” Vanover and his lanky arms. Vanover was left unsuccessful and with a personal foul. Tinkle predictably made his free throw as well. He’d finish the game shooting 100 percent from the line, and the team would combine for 82.1 percent.
But the Bears didn’t let the hole grow too deep.
Although Cal was once down by 11, the team was far from out of the game. A key 3-pointer from freshman Matt Bradley, several solid shots from Vanover in some sort of groove and key steals from freshman Andre Kelly and redshirt junior Paris Austin left the Bears trailing just 65-66 with 5:57 on the clock.
Truly a back-and-forth battle, 1:31 remained with only a 3-point difference on the scoreboard. The Bears sent the ball out to Bradley, their best shooter from behind the arc, but he couldn’t manage to tie things up. A successful layup by forward Kylor Kelley left OSU up 77-71 and all but assured a Beaver victory.
Ethan Thompson made two from the line to wrap up the game with a 79-71 win for OSU. Although a loss is a loss, Cal’s performance Saturday certainly had positive takeaways. The Bears’ ability to stay in the game even up until the final few minutes against a strong OSU team should give them some sort of assurance that they’re on the right track.
More importantly, it should provide head coach Wyking Jones with a better idea of who should consistently be on the court and the specific roles his players should fill.