Cal and Stanford set to battle in final game of season

Basketball player jumps in the air to shoot a basket.
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There are certain memories, regardless of how much time has passed, that are impossible to forget. For Cal men’s basketball sophomore Justice Sueing, that memory was his first taste of conference play.

“I just remember us being together and not giving up,” Sueing said. “No one had their head down. Everyone was playing as if we were in a close game.”

At the dawn of 2018, Sueing and company waltzed into Maples Pavilion and stormed back from a 17-point deficit to defeat Stanford on its own floor.

When recollecting his thoughts from that game, the ever-so-humble Sueing continually made reference to how that win was a team effort, sprinkling in the term “we” like it was parsley on a gourmet dish.

You’ll be hard-pressed to hear Sueing wax poetic on the hand he played in that win — or any of his other accomplishments, for that matter — but the Bears’ rising star was right at the center of that comeback, scoring 14 of his 18 points in the second half.

Sueing didn’t just get his team back in the game — he iced it. With his team down by 1 point with 30 seconds remaining, Sueing drove to the rack, absorbed the contact and hit a layup — plus the foul — to put his team up for good. That’s one hell of an introduction to the centuries-old rivalry.

“You can definitely feel the tension,” Sueing said. “Walking into their gym especially, with their fans and whoever’s there. You can feel that it’s personal when you walk in there. The rivalry’s great. It’s always going to be a good game between us.”

While it’s fun to be involved in those close clashes, it’s even more fun to win them. And for Cal, winning involves solving the riddle of how to guard KZ Okpala.

After a couple of OK-but-not-great games against the Bears as a freshman, Okpala finally made his mark on the rivalry. In what may very well have been his final game at Haas Pavilion, Okpala lit up Cal to the tune of a career-high 30 points, eight rebounds and four assists.

Okpala, a projected first-round selection in the upcoming draft, is arguably the most difficult player to check in the entire conference. The athletic forward has the craftiness and handle to get to the rim while also having the range to knock down a shot from distance — a combination that has propelled him to 17.1 points per game, the fourth-highest average in the Pac-12.

“Okpala is really, really good,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “He’s a talented young man. He really hurt us in game one — had 30 points in game one. Did an unbelievable job of getting into the lane, causing problems and finishing. We’re going to have to limit his paint touches.”

Stanford’s superstar is the epitome of what makes the team such a matchup nightmare: size. The Cardinal have the third-tallest team by average height according to KenPom, and that discrepancy led to 42 points in the paint and a 69.7 percent mark on 2-pointers against the Bears.

“They don’t rely on the three to win games,” Jones said. “It’s not something they do like some of the other teams in the league. What they do like to do is they like to get the ball in the paint, whether it’s through postups, from penetration, they really like to get the ball into the paint and make you pay.”

Justice delos Santos covers men’s basketball. Contact Justice delos Santos at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @justdelossantos.