Rivalry games always have a little bit of extra juice — an added, special energy. But this wasn’t just any foe for Cal, this was its younger brother to the south: UCLA. And not only was the No. 24 team in the nation coming to town having blown the doors off of Cal last December, but it was sitting atop the Pac-12 and riding a six-game winning streak.
There was a glimpse of hope that junior guard Matt Bradley, the Bears’ leading scorer who has missed the past five games with an ankle injury, would suit up when he participated in layup line warmups. However, minutes before tipoff, he was ruled out, and the chances of an upset win by the Bears fell drastically.
While the team fought valiantly until the very end, it simply wasn’t enough, as nationally ranked UCLA narrowly escaped Haas Pavilion with a 61-57 win.
“It really was a hard-fought and good college basketball game,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “Against a great team, we just made too many mistakes.”
If it planned to avoid an eighth straight loss to UCLA, Cal was going to have to shoot its way out of Thursday night’s contest. And that’s exactly what the team did at first — the Bears shot an impressive 58.3% from deep in the first half.
After going down 5-0 early, guard Makale Foreman drained his first three-point attempt of the night to put the Bears on the board. The Bruins scored four more to go up by six, but the Bears kept themselves in it by fighting for loose balls and seeking second-chance opportunities.
While UCLA scored frequently, Cal scored in bunches by shooting the deep ball and stayed within striking distance. In fact, 12 of the Bears’ first 20 points came off of three-point makes. Senior forward Grant Anticevich was a big reason for Cal’s success from behind the arc.
Anticevich, the only senior on the roster, nailed his first four triple attempts along with a smooth post-fadeaway over the Bruins’ Jaime Jaquez Jr. en route to tying his season-high of 21 points. By stretching out the defense, Anticevich helped space the floor and create good looks for his teammates, which soon paid dividends.
“We have some new guys and some younger guys. It’s important that we all be vocal on the floor,” Anticevich said. “It’s a responsibility for us to help the team out in that way.”
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the Bears took their first lead of the night off of another triple from Foreman. Bearers of a 23-22 lead, Fox and his players started having fun — a beautiful full-court outlet pass from forward Andre Kelly to guard Ryan Betley had the Bears’ socially distanced bench on their feet. The play even earned Kelly a high-five from his head coach.
“When we’re healthy, we want to play faster. We want to find as many easy baskets as we can,” Fox said.
With just under three minutes left in the first half, a made free throw following an and-one layup by Jarred Hyder gave Cal a six-point lead — its largest of the game. A putback layup at the buzzer helped the Bruins cut the lead down, but it was the underdog Bears who entered halftime with a 36-32 lead.
Coming out of the gates hot, UCLA reclaimed the lead, but every time the Bruins made a shot, Cal responded on the other end. With under 15 minutes remaining, the game was all tied up at 43 apiece. With both teams trading baskets down the stretch, the Bears eventually bought themselves a 55-54 lead off the back of an Anticevich triple.
The Bruins soon found their footing again, however. In the second half, they outrebounded the home team 24-12 and made the most of their opportunities, earning six second-chance points to the Bears’ zero.
A Jules Bernard triple late would end up being the dagger in Cal’s heart, as the Bruins held on to a four-point lead. Down 59-55 with a minute remaining, UCLA began killing the clock. The Bears were well aware that having to foul three times in 13 seconds and hoping for missed free throws didn’t amount to a recipe for success.
“It’s a shame we couldn’t get the win. We felt like we were right there,” Anticevich said.
Cal was right there. In a game that, on paper, the blue and gold had no business being in, against a ranked opponent on a national stage, the Bears were just a few plays away from victory. With that in mind and the seemingly imminent return of Bradley, who was seen putting up shots long after the final buzzer sounded, it appears that Fox’s team is trending upward.