Cal men’s basketball is in free fall.
Tuesday saw the Bears travel to La Jolla to face UC San Diego. A peek at the history of the two programs would suggest that this was a cupcake matchup for Cal. The Tritons, only reclassifying to Division I hoops in 2020, have neither played in an NCAA tournament nor sent a single player to the NBA in its history. Cal, on the other hand, has made 19 March Madness appearances — including five since 2010 — and has sent 35 players to the league.
The gulf in historical success between the two teams cannot be understated. Following Tuesday’s game, however, the Tritons have fully established recent superiority over the Bears.
UCSD beat Cal 64-62 on its home court, which is about one-third the size of Haas Pavilion, to trump the Bears for the second consecutive year. Though the scoreboard reflects a close finish, Cal was played off the court for much of the game.
Cal opened the game’s scoring to go up 2-0 — this was the only lead it ever held. From the opening tip, it was clear that Cal had no answer for UCSD guard Bryce Pope, who gave the Bears trouble all night in the most prolific three-point shooting performance of his career. Pope scored 19 points, 15 of which came from beyond the arc.
While Pope took them to work on the defensive end, the Bears looked disjointed on offense, struggling to find high-percentage looks and failing to knock down their few open shots. The Tritons expanded their lead to 18 points before Cal began to find its shooting stroke and whittle down the deficit.
Led by junior guard Devin Askew, freshman forward Grant Newell and senior forward Kuany Kuany, Cal began to put points on the board; it also rallied defensively, allowing fewer points from slow rotations or undetected backdoor cuts. The Bears improved as the game wore on, particularly in the second half.
“We came in with a very poor approach mentally with how we had to defend this team,” said head coach Mark Fox. “We did nothing in the first half that we wanted to do defensively. We didn’t make one adjustment at halftime — we just tried to improve their concentration. In the first half we gave up seven 3’s on 54% and in the second half we only gave up 22%.”
With a renewed focus, Cal gained confidence and its comeback snowballed. UCSD lost some of its composure as it watched its lead diminish; meanwhile, the Bears were emboldened by their own hot hand. The clock, however, is not subject to shifts in momentum and was working against the Bears.
With 59.3 seconds left, senior guard Joel Brown drove to the basket and scored to bring the Bears to within one at 60-61. UCSD needed a clutch basket, and it entrusted the ball to Pope, providing him the isolation needed to create his own shot. He would not score at the first time of asking, but a game-deciding rebound from forward Francis Nwaokorie gave him a second chance: Pope sized up Askew to let the shot clock runout, before burying a contested, fading three to send the Triton fans into raptures and put UCSD up four with 10.6 seconds left.
The Bears could not get two buckets with so little time and fell 64-62 at the final whistle, giving UCSD its second win against Power 5 opposition since reclassifying to Division I –– both victories having come against the Bears. As it was last year, this loss will be a major blemish on Cal’s record this season.
“This group has proven that we have to win everything the hard way, but this is an unacceptable effort,” said Fox. “I’m very disappointed.”