It was exactly 8:18 p.m. Pacific Standard Time when Japan’s “Ice Prince” Yuzuru Hanyu stepped into the Olympic skating rink in Beijing. He was going to attempt the brilliant, showstopping, never-been-done-before quadruple axel. For a short moment, there was a slight increase of oxygen in the world as millions of people held their breath when the first notes of his free-skate program sounded.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a completely different demographic of sports fans also held their breath as two relentless teams battled it out in Oregon’s Gill Coliseum, both of which were desperate to snap two devastating losing streaks. The moment the Bears and Beavers stepped onto the court, one thing was certain: One losing streak was going to be snapped tonight. The remaining question: Whose will it be? The sea of orange that filled the bleachers of Gill Coliseum, Cal fans behind the ESPN broadcast and yours truly all anxiously awaited the answer.
The blue and gold have had their fair share of down-to-the-wire games this season, including a double-overtime thriller against Southern Utah earlier this season. Fortunately, this matchup against Oregon State looked like it was going to offer the Bears another chance to test out their nerves of steel in the clutch seconds that determined victory and defeat.
The score was tied at 61 when Jordan Shepherd decided to take matters into his own hands; instead of waiting for the high screen that usually comes, he wasted no time in driving into the lane — beating OSU’s forward Warith Alatishe along the way — and gave Cal the lead with a goaltended layup. Dribble penetration kills. If the Bears polish their ability to take the ball to the basket in what little time they have in the remainder of the season, it would greatly decrease the number of losses solely due to shots not falling.
Less than 18 seconds left on the clock and the Beavers had the ball while down 2 — it was now time for Cal to showcase the defense that’s been at the core of its identity for so long. Surprisingly, the Beavers didn’t even try to get the ball in the hands of their best shooters — including forward Glenn Taylor Jr. and Alatishe, who both had shooting percentages of about 50 tonight — and relied on the dribble-and-drive technique, which is usually lethal if not for Shepherd’s phenomenal defense. Putting in work on both sides of the court, Shepherd’s ability to stay in front of guard Dexter Akanno ultimately made the difference in the game.
An out-of-bounds play gave the Beavers one last chance to defend their home turf as guard Jarod Lucas chucked up a fadeaway-corner 3-pointer that was actually strangely reminiscent of a certain Kawhi Leonard playoff dagger, except this one didn’t, well, go in.
And just like that, the Cal team that stepped off the Oregon court was slightly altered in the course of 40 little minutes — slightly more hopeful, slightly more confident, and the weight of a losing streak completely lifted.
Though the spotlight was on Shepherd as the clock was winding down, junior guard Joel Brown was the true star of this game, displaying his ability as an all-around player and nearly recording a triple double with 9 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists.
“I’m super proud of Joel,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “He really competed well today and I thought he was probably our MVP. We had a lot of guys chip in and play well but, boy, he was the difference in the game.”
Though the blue and gold can now breathe a short sigh of relief, they have absolutely no time to let down their guard as they gear up to face an Oregon team that is arguably significantly stronger than its state counterpart. As the Bears rest and regroup now without a losing streak on their minds, they should take comfort in the fact that the pressure of a losing streak is quite minimal in comparison to that of a quadruple axel.