LAS VEGAS — It’s only appropriate that the season ended in this fashion.
Throughout this slog of a season, Cal men’s basketball has clawed and fought and scrapped its way to stay in games, only to, more often than not, come out on the losing end. And so was the tale of its 56-51 loss to Colorado in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament.
The 12th-seeded Bears clawed and fought and scrapped against the fifth-seeded Buffaloes. They deflected passes. They forced turnovers. They stayed poised. They climbed back. Alas, it was all for naught.
After digging itself out of a 10-point hole with six minutes remaining and cutting the deficit to 3, Matt Bradley missed a game-tying 3-pointer with 20 seconds left that would’ve sent the game to overtime. Tyler Bey collected the rebound, iced the game with free throws and sent the Bears home for good.
Despite the miss, Bradley was impressive in his first taste of conference tournament play, finishing with 17 points, five rebounds, four steals and two assists. Justice Sueing was the only other Bear to hit double figures, finishing with a quiet 10 points.
“I thought it was going to go in, and I was pretty frustrated that it didn’t,” Bradley said. “I thank my coach for giving me the opportunity and my teammates to let me step up and try to take that shot, being a freshman, and trusting me, and just like, put the game on the line hitting that three, and I am really proud to be in that position, but I wish it would’ve went down.”
From solely the perspective of offense, Cal had no business being in this game. As a collective, the team shot 34 percent from the field, its fourth-lowest mark of the entire season.
Bradley and Connor Vanover both only hit a third of their shots. Paris Austin went two of nine from the field. Sueing, who lives at the line, didn’t attempt a free throw. The bench put up a bagel.
As strange as this statement may have sounded a few months ago, Cal stayed in the game almost entirely because of its defense.
Colorado shot fine from the field, but Cal collected 12 steals and forced 23 turnovers, the most it has forced of any opponent this season. Darius McNeill and Bradley had four steals apiece, while Vanover swatted three shots.
The Bears’ defense especially bothered Bey, who committed a season-high seven turnovers and was held to 8 points on one of six shooting. McKinley Wright IV, who led all scorers with 18 points, had five turnovers as well.
“I was really happy with my team’s effort. I felt like we played with a lot of energy. We forced them into 23 turnovers,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “A team that typically takes care of the ball — 12 steals. We were very active, very active defensively.”
On one possession, in particular, Bradley swooped in like a free safety to deflect an outlet pass from Wright, then McNeill saved the ball and tossed it to Vanover as his momentum took him out of bounds.
That energy and execution on the defensive end of the floor did not go unnoticed, as Buffaloes head coach Tad Boyle openly praised the Bears’ much-improved zone.
“I think their zone has gotten better since we played them in Berkeley,” Boyle said. “They do shoot gaps. They get their hands on balls. They’re very active in the zone. We didn’t really react as well as we needed to.”
The stellar defense may have canceled out Cal’s not-so-stellar offense, but the one department that flipped the game in Colorado’s favor was rebounding, as Cal lost on the glass 40 to 19. For all of Bey’s struggles, he led all players with 11 boards.
“What really hurt us is giving up 10 offensive rebounds,” Jones said. “It’s hard to win a basketball game when you get outrebounded by that margin.”
So concludes the second season of the Jones era, and considering how his tenure has taken shape, this upcoming offseason is shaping up to be one rife with uncertainty.