Update 3/12/2020: Cal Athletics and the Pac-12 announced that all competitions, including Men’s Basketball and the Pac-12 Tournament, will be suspended until further notice.
It shouldn’t have happened. Cal lost three key players and its head coach, the conference had just improved substantially, the Bears hadn’t won a game in neutral territory in three years and it seemed as though the blue and gold forgot to play basketball when they were away from Haas Pavilion, losing by an average of 15.6 points in their 13 road losses.
But despite the odds, the doubt and the lowered expectations, the Bears clawed and mauled their way to their first Pac-12 tournament victory since Cal’s 2016-17 campaign. Magic wasn’t reserved to just the Vegas Strip as Cal proved the desert was Bear Territory, defeating Stanford 63-51.
Senior guard Paris Austin, in what could very well have been the last game of his career, brought the energy and spark that Cal had relied on so often this season, picking up 4 points and 2 assists in the opening four and a half minutes to give the Bears an 11-4 advantage.
But right on cue, the blue and gold’s efficient, high-tempo offense slowed to a screeching halt, as foul trouble, contested shots and poor 3-point shooting buried Cal in a scoring drought which lasted more than six minutes. Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, the Bears’ two starting forwards, were both benched for most of the half after picking up 2 fouls apiece in the first seven minutes, and as a result the Cardinal came charging back.
Or rather, crawling back, as they too struggled to put points on the board. All-Pac 12 forward Oscar da Silva went 1-7 in the first half as Cal defended the paint with a vigor and ferocity that shut down Stanford’s leading scorer. Da Silva’s partner in crime, NBA prospect Tyrell Terry, was also a victim of a tightly officiated game as he picked up 2 fouls that sidelined him for much of the first half.
Despite the absences of its star players, Stanford rallied with a 10-2 run that evened the game at 17 apiece with 5:22 left to play in the first. In poor scoring stretches, it’s usually second-team All Pac-12 guard Matt Bradley or explosive streaks from Kelly and Anticevich that resuscitate Cal’s offense.
But staring down the barrel of a career-ending loss, it was Austin and graduate transfer Kareem South that propelled the Bears to a 10-point advantage off the back of a 13-3 run. South contributed 2 pullup jumpers and Austin drove into the paint and fought through contact to give Cal the lead. At the break, the veteran pair led all scorers with 9 points each.
As the second half teed off, it was obvious that the Cardinal had changed their defensive strategy. Da Silva hunkered down close to the rim, shutting down the Bears’ inside-the-paint offense that was the majority of Cal’s attack in the first half. Locked out of their go-to scoring mechanism, Cal went to South and Bradley and the two combined for 9 points in the first nine minutes — the majority of which came from midrange and perimeter jump shots.
The second period would not be all Vegas sunshine for the Bears. Despite facing a 13-point deficit, the largest of the game thus far, Stanford would continue to fight, pulling the game to within 6 after a Daejon Davis layup.
But as the game winded to a close, the blue and gold put on a classic performance. Bradley, the Bears’ leader and star, scored the lion’s share of buckets in the second half, leading the way with 12 points. And on the other side of the ball, vintage Cal came out to play. Anticevich shut down da Silva, the Cardinal were limited to 4-11 from beyond the arc, and across the board the Bears made a conscious effort to secure defensive rebounds as Cal secured a Pac-12 tournament victory for the first time in three years.
This loss has huge implications for Stanford’s chances to qualify for March Madness. The Cardinal came into this game projected as one of the first four out, meaning they were clinging to their tournament lives and needed a boost to their resume to secure their spot. But a loss to Cal, a notoriously poor road team with a less-than-stellar overall record (14-18), could all but crush the dreams of Stanford fans who wished to see their team compete for a national championship.
Coming into the game, head coach Mark Fox emphasized the importance of defense, knowing that the Bears’ offense was not the team’s strong suit. And his strategy paid dividends as da Silva and Terry, the Cardinal’s two leading scorers, shot a combined 3-17 for a measly 10 points.
“Coach Fox stuck to his game plan throughout the whole season and we knew if we stuck to his game plan we were going to execute and win,” Bradley said.
On the other side of the court, it was an outstanding effort from the Bears’ ensemble that resulted in a Cal victory. South and Austin scored 15 and 18 points respectively, 6 other members of the blue and gold put up buckets, and the Bears made 16 free throws at an 80% clip as Cal scored 63 points — their best performance this season against Stanford.
Coach Fox similarly noted the effort of Cal’s supporting cast before giving praise to Bradley.
“Matt had great help in the first half,” Fox said. “In the second half, he got going and he’s been a great player all year.”
Bradley was everywhere for the Bears, delivering clutch shots, defending the perimeter and pulling down 6 tough boards. The veteran guard was a strong candidate for most improved player of the year, and demonstrated once again why he deserves to be in the pantheon of elite Pac-12 players.
The sophomore will hope to continue his elevated play in the next round, as the Bears will take on familiar rival UCLA. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. on March 12 and the game will be streamed on Pac-12 Networks.