On a day where Wake Forest and Arizona State blew late double-digit leads and Xavier punctuated a downward spiral by letting a 6-point lead with less than a minute remaining slip away, it seemed as if the stage was set for Cal to pull off another upset, worthy of Twitter users screaming: “THIS IS MARCH.”
Unfortunately for fans, Cal couldn’t rally from an early deficit and was eliminated from the Pac-12 tournament after a 59-66 loss to Washington State. The Bears struggled with the Cougars’ toughness from the start, committing early turnovers that resulted from the latter’s ability to draw charges and poke the ball loose. A physical game saw six fouls combined in the first five minutes, and it was evident that getting Grant Anticevich going early would be a major component of the contest for the Bears, in order to quell the Cougars’ size with some effective perimeter play.
It just wasn’t in the cards for the blue and gold Wednesday night. Anticevich’s 2-8 start punctuated a first period where the Bears shot an abysmal 8-35 from the field. No matter the player Cal tried to make the focal point, Washington State was ready. Makale Foreman off of the bench went 0-4 in the first half, and when Jordan Shepherd decided to hoist up some shots, those weren’t falling either.
The Cougars, on the flip side, exposed the scars that plagued Cal throughout the season when its mismatches were central to its struggles. Guards such as TJ Bamba and Michael Flowers terrorized the Bears with their quickness and shooting ability, while the Bears in the first half made just six of their 24 attempts from inside the 3-point arc.
The battle was always going to be between Cal’s elite 3-point defense against a Washington State team that ranks in the Pac-12’s top five in 3-point percentage. It was a battle that the Cougars handily won in the first half, going four for 10; Flowers himself went 2-3 from 3-point land in the first 20 minutes. Cal’s woes in guarding the 3-point shot were akin to its experiences the last time the two teams faced off. During Washington State’s 68-64 win Feb. 5, it shot a blistering 47.6% from downtown.
“The strength of our team when we play well is our defense,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “We needed to take away the 3-point line, and we didn’t. You combine that with us not finishing some plays, and that creates a deficit that we just couldn’t overcome.”
The Bears, who have long been a second-half team in the regular season, started to make some headway coming out of the break. Three free throws by Foreman cut what was once a 32-20 deficit to a 35-31 Cougar lead after five minutes elapsed, and he was able to shake off a dismal start by shooting above 50% in the second half. The Cougars cooled off considerably, going 3-17 in the first eight minutes of the second half, and an uptick in fouls from both teams enabled the Bears to get to the free-throw line a whopping 11 times in the first 10 minutes.
Buoyed by a bevy of Cal turnovers and late trips to the free-throw line, Washington State managed to pull away yet again, as has been the theme in so many of the Bears’ hard-fought games. And it seemed as though after playing Cal aggressively for three games, Washington State found the formula to put the Bears away for good.
“They’re a team that obviously shoots the 3 well, they have interior scoring, and they’re balanced enough to play through some of those situations,” Fox said.
With the loss, the Bears were eliminated in the first round for the first time in three years. Many questions will have to be answered, including whether Andre Kelly will return for another year. In the meantime, it will be Cal watching from home as Washington State moves on to face No. 13 UCLA.