With no timeouts remaining and one shot to complete a comeback against Utah, graduate transfer guard Jordan Shepherd took an inbound pass and raced up the court.
For a few fleeting moments, it looked as if Cal’s leading scorer would propel the team to a victory, especially after sophomore guard Jalen Celestine knocked down a trey just a play ago. Instead, his 3-point shot fell short at the buzzer, and after a sequence that exemplified the Bears’ close-but-not cigar season, their rally attempt fell shy by just 2 points.
The Bears will face Stanford in their final home game of the season after a nail-biting 58-60 loss to the Utes on Saturday.
Cal led shortly after tipoff, but the Utes blew the game open and never relinquished their lead, no matter how many times the Bears cut into it. From the outset, it was clear that Cal looked to establish an inside presence. Being a small group, it was something it sorely needed –– especially in wake of Andre Kelly’s season-ending injury. During the opening minutes, the team also got contributions from the defensive end as well; the Utes shot just 3-8 in the first five minutes.
Eventually, though, the Bears’ undersized rotations reared their ugly heads. Utah was able to get to the paint effortlessly, buoyed by an aggressive push that saw them get to the foul line for multiple and-1 opportunities. And as Utah tightened up defensively inside, Cal saw its offense sputter, going scoreless for more than four minutes at one point and committing six turnovers in the first half.
With the home team struggling to put the ball in the basket throughout the second half, it seemed as though the game was headed toward a blowout. However, after a stretch that saw Grant Anticevich and Shepherd knock down a back-to-back 3 and layup, respectively, the lead was suddenly cut from 43-31 to 47-43. The feelings of euphoria from both the players and fans wouldn’t last, however, as Utah made one of two free throws and pulled out a thrilling victory after Shepherd’s final miss.
Neither team shot the ball well from beyond the arc, which was expected. Both teams came into the game in the Pac-12’s top three in 3-point percentage defense, and the futility from downtown proved eerily similar to when the two teams first met this season back in December.
This time, Cal and Utah both shot under 20% from the perimeter. With both teams’ stagnant shooting, it was all the more important for them to get points from underneath the basket.
While they gave up plenty of points inside, the Bears also went toe-to-toe with the Utes in that category for the duration of the game. Both teams combined for 64 points in the paint, with the Bears and Utes contributing 30 and 34, respectively. Forward Lars Thiemann was a bright spot, contributing across the board with 16 points and eight rebounds.
“When you extend (to the 3-point line) like that both teams did, you’ve got to make sure that you can get some things done on the interior,” said head coach Mark Fox. “Lars was really sound today. … One or two fewer mistakes or one more basket, and we’d have a different result.”
It’s clear that the Bears had an uphill battle with a packed stretch of games earlier in the year, as well as players sitting out due to injuries and COVID-19. However, the second half proved that the Bears can partially overcome that adversity, and they’ll look to finish the job against Stanford on Feb. 26.