Bye-bye Bears: Cal unable to close against No. 23 Colorado

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Lisi Ludwig/Senior Staff

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After defeating Stanford in a stunning result Wednesday night, the Bears gave their fans hope — hope that perhaps they would actually make some noise in the Pac-12 tournament. Instead, Cal did what its fans have come to expect — it disappointed. On Thursday night, the Bears lost 58-61 to No. 23 Colorado, ending their season and sending them back into hibernation.

Junior guard Matt Bradley had his worst outing of the season, managing to post just 10 points on 3-11 shooting. Despite Cal’s leading scorer having an off-night, there was a point when the blue and gold appeared to have the upper hand and even a shot to win. But it simply wasn’t meant to be — Las Vegas will have to find a new Cinderella.

A game that tipped off more than an hour later than initially scheduled came down to the last shot. But Makale Foreman’s deep three-pointer to tie rattled out, and with it, so too did the hopes of Cal faithful everywhere. As the final horn sounded, the graduate transfer was left on his knees in the same position, holding his head in disbelief. It was certainly a disappointing end to the season, but even moreso considering the fact that the Bears had ripped off a 6-0 run in the last minute to give themselves a chance at forcing overtime.

Early on, the Bears looked as engaged as ever, playing great defense to force the Buffaloes into seven straight misses. A combination of elite defense and smart shot selection had Cal running out of the gates to a 7-0 lead.

But Colorado adjusted — and quickly — shifting from settling for contested jump shots to attacking the basket. The strategy got the Buffaloes right back into the game, as they went on a run of their own to cut the lead down to just one.

Just as soon as they had heated up, the blue and gold went cold. After making two of its first three attempts, Cal proceeded to miss 11 of its next 13 attempts. The offensive regression that had plagued the blue and gold all season, which they had seemingly avoided against the Cardinal, was beginning to rear its ugly head again.

The first half saw both squads embody a true grind-it-out mentality, as the defense was intense and physical across the board. With both teams struggling mightily on the offensive end and Colorado holding on to a 24-20 lead at halftime, it was truly a test of wills. For Cal, entering halftime down a razor-thin margin to a Pac-12 powerhouse must have been encouraging. Add in the fact that the Bears were so close despite playing on such little rest and Bradley’s shooting woes, and Cal fans had reason to like their odds.

But, the Buffaloes were bound to start running soon. Led by senior guard McKinley Wright IV, Colorado has been an offensive force all season, usually outshooting teams to win contests. The Bears’ suffocating defense has been their calling all season, so the second half was setting up to answer the age-old question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?

A layup by Eli Parquet with 16:33 left to play in the clash marked the last lead change of the night. From the point on, the Buffaloes weren’t just running — they were stampeding. Colorado never looked back, going up by as much as 13 and holding a lead until time ran out on Cal’s season. The Bears’ late-game heroics may have put a scare in the Buffaloes, but weren’t enough to surmount a late nine-point deficit.

The difference in the game could ultimately be chalked up to free-throw shooting. Colorado is one of the better free-throw shooting teams in the nation and tonight was no different as the Buffaloes sank 18 of 23 free throws. In a game that was closer than many anticipated, giving up so many free throws was a major miscue on Cal’s part.

It’s hard not to wonder how this game might have gone had Bradley found his form early on. The problem of Bradley, alone, shouldering the load of the Bears’ offense has been one that’s cost them all-season long. And in the most important matchup of the year, it cost them yet again. For Cal, a disappointing season concluded in disappointing fashion, but by now, perhaps we should know not to expect any different.

Tom Aizenberg covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].