Although Cal men’s basketball has seen its fair share of heartbreaks in the past, between its historic 33-0 winning record against UC Davis and 2-1 home opening record for as long as head coach Mark Fox has been at the helm, it’s not far-fetched to claim that the fans were optimistic ones. Fans that certainly weren’t expecting a 75-65 Cal loss.
Optimism is a truly funny thing — however battle-tested and weathered, a single sliver of hope is enough to revive it. To say that the fans sitting in the bleachers of Haas Pavilion tonight had their optimism tested would be the understatement of all time.
Two quick triples by Sam Alajiki and Joel Brown opened the game — it was clear that the Bears were hoping to put the shooting struggles of the exhibition game behind them. It was, however, a frantic start for both teams: Lucky audiences sitting courtside had the privilege of catching several stray balls and careless passes.
The blue and gold held a clear height advantage over their opponents from up north, with senior center Lars Thiemann standing at 7’0’’, towering over his defenders. Thiemann’s impact was apparent from the start — with a sky hook and a bank shot, it was clear that he had the potential to easily put the game away if he dominates in the paint.
The key word being “if”.
An extreme case of butter fingers and a consistent failure to box out would have dissolved even a height advantage held by Yao Ming.
“You have got to be willing to be physical in the paint,” said coach Fox. “You have got to be alert to the miss, and I’m extremely disappointed in how we rebounded the ball in our exhibition game and how we rebounded tonight.”
Aggies had the upper hand heading into the second half with a 41-36 lead.
On paper, there was nothing seriously concerning about the blue and gold’s performance at the half: The Bears yielded a 56% field goal percentage, a strangely uncharacteristic yet nevertheless impressive statistic, and 44% from beyond the arc — an absolute turnaround from an atrocious 11% in exhibition. They also seemed to actually take advantage of the free throw, making 80% of their shots at the stripe.
Regardless, concern hung in the air.
Every blue and gold possession seemed to lack purpose. Cal certainly seemed to have no trouble running plays — it was quite simple, really: passing and driving, passing and driving — but that was all it was doing.
Onlookers could very well have mistaken Haas Pavilion to have hosted a Mathlete competition, with all the shot clock countdowns the crowd was doing. Not to mention, although the Bears appealed to the three-pointer gods over the weekend, it seems that they forgot to set up an altar for the rebounding ones, allowing 40 rebounds.
And yet, empty Cal possession after empty Cal possession, the Bears still only found themselves down 5 at the half.
Cal remained within striking distance purely due to its opponent’s mistakes — careless passes by the Aggies put the ball in the Bears’ hands time and time again. The second half saw a blue and gold run at the halfway mark; not a soul was sitting following an electrifying Marsalis Roberson dunk. None other than Askew was at the center of the Bears’ run, however, as he fueled the comeback with two nearly identical fadeaways and a thrilling and-one to tie the game at 51.
The comeback was short-lived. Davis took a 75-65 victory over Cal — the first and only time the Aggies have bested the Bears on a basketball court. Askew had a team-high 19 points while Thiemann snagged eight boards.
From dribble penetration to transition defense, this Cal men’s basketball team has a long way to go before having the potential to make an impact in a league as demanding as the Pac-12. Nevertheless, the show must go on.