Variety is the spice of life. Cal basketball is detrimentally unseasoned.
Cal hosted Texas State on Monday in a game that followed the same script as past games this season: The blue and gold trailed by double digits early in the second half and then markedly improved in the final minutes to launch a comeback that was ultimately too little, too late.
The Bobcats’ gritty win earned them admission to an increasingly inclusive club of teams that have beaten the Bears this season.
To Cal’s credit, it would not relinquish the lead within the opening minutes as it did against UCSD and Southern. The Bears and Bobcats exchanged blows early, but led by dead-eye shooter Mason Harrell and a committee of imposing big men down low, Texas State exposed a Cal team that lacked both scoring depth and physicality under the basket. With 15:26 remaining in the second half, the Bobcat lead stretched to 11, its largest of the game.
Then, a familiar chaos ensued: With their backs against the wall, the Bears initiated their trademarked second-half frenzy. Cal raced up and down the court looking to run and gun with an intensity and urgency that gave the Bears a foothold for a comeback.
Devin Askew thrived amid the chaos: he was operating on pure instinct as he marshaled Cal’s quick transitions, knocking down crucial jumpers and creating shots for teammates. Lars Thiemann backed up Askew with a number of jump hooks and successful trips to the free throw line –– the two combined for 23 points in the second half, more than the entire team managed in the opening 20 minutes.
But in the face of Cal’s intense pressure, Texas State responded with complete sangfroid.
The Bobcats were resolute in earning their points the old-fashioned way — in the paint — and capitalized on Cal’s overeagerness to launch fast breaks by dominating the offensive boards. Even as Askew and Thiemann continued to score on the other end and slowly chip away at the their deficit, Texas State was unmoved as it continued to exert control over the paint, generating a steady stream of second-chance points and foul shots to sustain its lead and keep the Bears at a distance.
“We failed to keep them off the offensive glass,” said forward Sam Alajiki. “We really needed all five guys to crash the boards because they were sending four, five guys to the boards every possession. When we came out in the zone, (Lars and I) were outmatched at the back. We were much bigger than them, so in theory we should have grabbed every (rebound). But when it played out it didn’t go that way.”
At the final whistle, blue and gold fell 59-55, gifting Texas State its first win against Pac-12 opposition in program history. Cal is now 0-5, its worst start to a season since the 1976-1977 season.
“We’re a wounded team right now,” said head coach Mark Fox. “We’ve had a miserable start to the season.”
Wounded the Bears are indeed. With critical injuries at guard, including transfer DeJuan Clayton, sophomore Marsalis Roberson, and junior Jalen Celestine, the blue and gold are plagued with a scoring deficiency that makes it impossible to win games. But with the level of competition set to quickly ramp up as Cal commences tournament and conference play this week, the Bears’ wounds will only be magnified to a greater degree, this time in front of a national audience.
“When all the injuries are in one position, it’s a challenge for us,” Fox said. “We should be able to deal with injury, but usually you have a few more guys in there. It’s impacted us for sure, but we have to play better basketball.”