Cal took the Haas Pavilion floor on Saturday night, and the energy felt a bit different. Perhaps it was the fact that rival Colorado, who sat third in the Pac-12 and embarrassed the Bears earlier this season, was in town. Or perhaps it was because the blue and gold were donning their throwback threads, bringing to mind Cal basketball’s glory days when Jason Kidd ran the show and inspired young hoopers across Berkeley and the East Bay.
Whatever the reason, the Bears had a little extra pep in their step during warmups that continued through the final buzzer, when the blue and gold looked up at the scoreboard and saw themselves the winners of a 71-62 thriller. The win was perhaps Cal’s most impressive of the season and snapped a seven-game losing streak, the longest ever under head coach Mark Fox.
As has been the case in many of Cal’s contests this season, the bulk of the team’s offensive output came from budding star guard Matt Bradley. Bradley poured in a career-high 29 points against the Buffaloes, marking the 10th time this season that he has scored at least 20 points in a game. The junior didn’t play the last time these two teams faced off and certainly seemed to be the difference, stepping up when the Bears needed him most.
With 40 ticks remaining and Cal grasping onto a two-point lead, Bradley nailed a tough three-pointer to extend the Bears’ lead and essentially seal the game. Bradley’s shot to seal an upset win over a team that will likely make the NCAA tournament was impressive, but even more impressive was what the shot represented.
In their last contest against the Utes, Bradley was put in a similar situation, with the opportunity to make a game-winning three. It wasn’t meant to be Thursday, as Bradley’s shot clanged off iron and Cal was held shy of the upset win. On Saturday, however, Bradley had ice in his veins and closed the book on Colorado. It seemed to be a turning point for Fox’s team, the type of maturation the coach has searched for finally coming to fruition.
“We’re just growing up. First, you have to learn how to play well, Then, you have to learn how to play well in the face of adversity,” Fox said.
Some Bears were asked to grow up faster than others. Freshman Jalen Celestine made the second start of his career after earning the starting nod in Cal’s last matchup. But it didn’t end there — Celestine was tasked with defending the Buffaloes’ shifty senior guard McKinley Wright IV.
Wright went off for 13 points and 12 assists in a January bout with the blue and gold, and while he dropped 13 points again this time around, Celestine limited the skilled playmaker’s opportunities to facilitate and held Wright to three assists. Wright also struggled from the field, as the two-time first-team All-Pac-12 recipient shot just 3-11 from the field and netted seven of his points at the line. A big reason why was the length of Celestine.
“It’s always going to be tough going against him,” Celestine said. “He’s one of the toughest point guards in the conference, maybe the country.”
But Celestine’s didn’t just break out on the defensive end of the floor. The freshman guard notched his first three attempts from deep en route to a 13-point performance in 33 minutes. His score line, like Bradley’s, indicated a career-high, and it was those two who shouldered the load for the Bears — in fact, the duo combined for 26 of Cal’s 36 first-half points.
The blue and gold’s defense extended beyond Celestine’s play, though. Throughout the night, Fox’s squad pestered Colorado into tough shots, drew offensive fouls and hustled after loose balls. The Bears clawed their way to a lead (often, albeit, a slim one) in more than 31 of 40 minutes and outpaced the Buffaloes in both blocks and steals. Cal’s efforts represented the grit of a team that has known what it is like to lose and knows it doesn’t want to return there.
As halftime closed, Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” pounded through the public-address system speakers overhead. Once the opening interlude closes, Mill famously asks the listener, “You ready?” On this night, as the opening interlude of their season came to a close, the Bears were ready — ready to exorcise past demons and ready to grow up.
Kabir Rao is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.