Jordan Shepherd took it personally.
What he took personally is debatable. What isn’t debatable, however, is that this was a must-win game.
The air smelled a mixture of sweat and desperation — a scent that perspires tension and inspires many a player. With 8,773 fans in attendance and the looming pressure of a victorious senior night, not to mention the presence of all-time great Jason Kidd sitting in the audience, the stakes were higher than the peak of the Campanile.
“It was great to have Jason (Kidd) back,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “We have a responsibility to rebuild our program to a point where everybody is proud of it. They understand that this is a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight.”
The Bears understood this. If it weren’t for the scoreboard, unpunctual fans might have mistaken the matchup in front of them to be in its closing minutes: bodies on the ground, court drenched with sweat and expressions full of determination. By the end of all of it, Cal emerged all but unscathed against its Bay Area rival, 53-39.
A fast-paced start and triples by Jordan Shepherd propelled Cal to an early 8-point lead. Quick hands by Cal’s defense and Lars Thiemann — who contributed a couple of blocks with his 7-foot frame — helped the Bears extend their lead. Ball movement that seemed to be charged by the electrifying energy of Haas Pavilion ultimately allowed easy layups for Shepherd and Joel Brown.
The Bears held their opponent to a mere 4 points in the first 10 minutes of the ball game — a feat that can be fully attributed to their help defense. When one man got beat, another was right there. Between the Cardinal’s inability to find a gap in the defense and their horrific first half shooting, it was no surprise that they found themselves down by a double-digit deficit in the first half.
It was clear as day: Not only were the Cardinal getting outplayed, but they were also getting outworked. The blue and gold were truly a spectacle to behold; instead of the static offense that had been the catalyst of so many of their losses, the Bears seemed to have finally realized the deadliness of dribble penetration. Cal recorded a field goal percentage of 53.8% at the half, an accomplishment that can no doubt be credited to the opportunity of easy shots in the paint.
With 19 points at the half, Shepherd played as if he wanted Haas Pavilion to remember his name. Leading Stanford 35-12, Cal players, coaches and fans alike hoped with all of their hearts that the lead was enough of a cushion to secure the win — but the game was not over yet.
Two consecutive 3s by Stanford to start the second half were not a good sign. However, it did not seem to signal the start of a Cardinal comeback. A one-handed slam by Thiemann had all of the houses within a 5-mile radius of Haas Pavilion wondering what all of the uproar was: Crafty footwork by Brown in the paint created “oohs” louder than any rap battle in the last 10 years. As for Cal’s main scorer, the Cardinal seemed to understand as well as anybody else the ticking time bomb that was Shepherd, as the defense on him was tighter than that of Stephen Curry in any Warriors game.
Though the Bears unexpectedly found themselves in a scoring drought with 10 minutes left to play in the game, they showed no signs of fatigue. Loose balls were visible for about a millisecond before being pounced on by a diving body; white Cal jerseys soared in the air for rebounds; and the lines around the paint became wrestling rings as the ball was wrested from the crowd of red.
As the final buzzer sounded, signaling a Cal victory, the blue and gold faithful’s sense of superiority could be seen on the faces who walked out of the building. Shepherd, who ended the night with 28 points on 11 of 16 shooting, never got a heat check. And all of the seniors, including Logan Alters, Makale Foreman, Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich, the latter of whom set the all-time record for Cal games played at 136 tonight, said their last goodbyes to Haas Pavilion on Saturday.
Holding the Cardinal to 39 points, it was the fewest points allowed by the Bears in any conference game since 1985.
“It’s huge,” Anticevich said. “It feels special to be able to beat our rival in a convincing win and have the whole team play so well and to have a great crowd.”
If fans’ cheers at the end of the night were any indication, this Senior Night ended off with quite a bang: “Pomp and Circumstance” present in plenty. Quite a successful send-off for the seniors, if you ask me.