Tasked with upsetting an Oregon squad that sits in third in the Pac-12, Cal already had its hands full on Saturday afternoon. Add in the fact that the Ducks were motivated and looking to make a late push for the top spot in the conference with three games left to play, and the blue and gold playing spoiler seemed improbable, if not impossible. So when the final Haas Pavilion buzzer sounded on both a 74-63 Oregon win and Cal’s regular season, it appeared that the Bears were ready for hibernation.
Perhaps the only constant for Cal in this unprecedented season – besides its knack for underperforming when expectations are high – has been the scoring ability of standout junior Matt Bradley. Despite missing several games with injuries, Bradley leads the Bears in scoring and has put the team on his back; essentially, if Bradley has an off-night, the blue and gold might as well take the night off.
“This is something we knew, that it was going to take us a couple years to build the consistency offensively that we need,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “We need to find scoring across the board, it can’t just be one or two guys.”
On Saturday, Bradley struggled to find any semblance of offensive rhythm early, missing his first four attempts, including a missed dunk that clanged off iron. And, as has been the theme this season, that meant Cal was struggling as well. The Bears shot a putrid 20% from the field through the first 14 minutes of action compared to the Ducks’ 47.1%.
Cal kept its deficit to mostly single-digits by pestering Oregon into five first-half turnovers and, on the offensive end, patiently seeking good looks on numerous possessions. But when those offensive possessions didn’t translate to the ball going into the basket, the blue and gold had a problem on their hands.
During one stretch, the Ducks ripped off a 10-0 run while the Bears were in the midst of a 1-for-14 shooting stretch from the field. Cal shooters were missing forced jumpers but it wasn’t just blue and gold snipers who missed the mark – big men, such as Lars Thiemann, couldn’t convert on seemingly easy hook shots in the post. With Bradley failing to shoulder the load and nobody else on the roster stepping up, it appeared that the blue and gold’s regular season would end in painfully familiar fashion.
That is, until Jarred Hyder woke the Bears up. The sophomore transfer, who led Cal with seven first-half points, broke his team’s scoring drought with a deep triple. The three-pointer sparked something in the Bears as they followed their 1-for-14 stretch by making their next five attempts. Back-to-back scores from guard Ryan Betley, a transition layup from Jalen Celestine and a pretty spin move into a Bradley and-1 play had the blue and gold suddenly down by just four.
Oregon regrouped, however, and responded emphatically. A pin-point alley-oop lob from Ducks guard Chris Duarte to forward Eugene Omoruyi showed the precision of a connection that has been forged through hours of practice. Omoruyi finished the jam through contact and converted the free throw en route to a game-high 21 points. Oregon followed Omoruyi into the locker room nursing a 34-27 lead at halftime, while the Bears never even sniffed a lead all half long.
The second half didn’t get much better for Cal – in fact, it got worse. The Bears’ sloppy play continued as they finished the game with 11 turnovers. Perhaps worse than the number of turnovers was the lack of a defensive response from the blue and gold every time they lost the ball. It’s hard for a team to get its half-court defense set following a turnover, and that was made evident by the Ducks translating those 11 miscues into 27 points.
“When you learn the consequences of the little things, you realize there’s no such thing as a little thing,” Fox said.
Those consequences became more demoralizing as the game wore on. With under eight minutes left in the contest, Oregon senior LJ Figueroa snatched the Bears’ hearts from their chests. After making a contested layup, Figueroa immediately stole the ball on a bad pass from Hyder and drilled a three to put the Ducks up by 16 – their largest lead of the game to that point. Cal was forced into a timeout and several Bears trudged to the other side of the floor as Figueroa clapped emphatically in front of them.
But Figueroa wasn’t done yet. Coming out of the timeout, he nabbed another steal and cut through the lane for yet another layup, bullying his way to an impressive 20-point, 14-rebound performance. As Figueroa yelled in Bradley’s face, there was nothing the guard could do but smirk and inbound the ball. It was a perfect metaphor for the ballgame: Cal couldn’t get out of its own way and Oregon took full advantage.
As the Bears wrap up their regular season on a four-game losing streak, they have 11 days to shore up issues like turnovers and transition defense before the Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas. Cal will hope to produce big results, but it’s become awfully clear that the blue and gold’s formula hasn’t been one for success.
“We knew it was going to be somewhat of a challenge to score all-year long,” Fox said. “That’s why we were hopeful that our defense was going to be as good as it was last year. It just hasn’t been.”
Kabir Rao is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.