Once upon a time, back in January, two teams — both winless in Pac-12 play — vied for the title of “best of the worst,” and Washington State came away with a decisive blowout win over Cal men’s basketball, shattering hope for the Bears. And as Cal continued to fall, recording another 10 losses, Wazzu rose, sweeping Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado.
A week ago, the prospect of some sort of fairy-tale ending for Cal men’s basketball (7-22, 2-15), which has recorded one of the worst seasons in program history, was a laughable, unimaginable concept. Yet the Bears are in the midst of writing a magical ending to a nightmare of a season.
After upsetting No. 25 Washington in a 3-point game Thursday night, Cal got a second look at bottom-of-the-conference foe Washington State to come away with a 76-69 victory.
Although slightly less climactic after the Bears toppled the Huskies, Saturday afternoon’s game was the matchup circled on everyone’s calendars long ago — it was thought of as Cal’s best chance of a conference win, despite the 82-59 slaughter the Bears suffered in Pullman.
But Washington State didn’t come with quite the same energy Cal was riding into the game. On the same fateful Thursday night, the rising Cougars fell by 48 points at Stanford, and Washington State appeared to still be in recovery mode Saturday.
While neither team had an exceptional defense, Wazzu visibly struggled to score in the paint and missed some key shots from the line. The Bears outscored the Cougars 26-4 on points from the paint and 16-0 on points from turnovers in the first half.
Though Wazzu never took the lead, the Cougars’ dominant forwards, freshman CJ Elleby and senior Robert Franks, kept the team afloat with their 3-point shooting. At the break, Washington State was shooting 53.8 percent from behind the arc but still trailed 29-41.
Cal’s aggression, movement and offensive balance were key for the Bears building and maintaining their first-half lead. Moments of brilliance — a particularly nice and-1 from Andre Kelly on a foul by power forward Isaiah Wade, a dunk off the fast break by Juhwan Harris-Dyson on his first play off the bench and two beautifully clean 3-pointers from freshman Connor Vanover — kept the team rocking to the hurrahs echoing throughout Haas Pavilion.
“We play best when we share the ball,” said sophomore forward Justice Sueing. “When everyone is shooting, it’s hard for teams to guard us. It spreads the floor out and gives us easier plays to make.”
Cal ended the game with four players — sophomore Darius McNeill, junior Paris Austin, Vanover and Sueing — scoring double digits. Wazzu, on the other hand, put all the pressure on Elleby and Franks, but the senior would go scoreless for the first 14 minutes of the second half.
Franks wasn’t the only one who got sloppy in the second half. Still aggressive but losing consistency, the Bears shot 20 percent from the arc and 50 percent from the line, despite their perfect free-throw accuracy in the first half.
Sueing, in particular, had a rough stretch, missing a dunk and a layup before turning the ball over on a bad pass.
“We were sped up, and I told the guys, ‘Slow down,’ ” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “We were so anxious to make a play. Thursday night, we had poise, we took our time, we were calculated. … I think they were anxious to be out there, anxious to be in the driving seat for a change, and everyone just really wanted to make a play.”
The Bears never allowed a margin of fewer than 6 points between themselves and the Cougars and would finish the game with Austin blocking a final 3-point attempt to come out with the 76-69 win.
The way Cal is wrapping up its ghoulish season is turning heads, but the Bears still have one last conference game to play before heading into the Pac-12 tournament. While the back-to-back wins are magical in themselves, they cannot quite constitute a fairy-tale ending just yet.