In their season opener, the Bears went the distance against the visiting St. Thomas Tommies, with crucial buckets in crunch time to seal Cal’s 71-66 victory.
Cal head coach Mark Madsen, nicknamed ‘Mad Dog,’ kicked off his Bear-coaching career 1-0, making him the 14th head coach for the team to win in their debut. It was also the first time since 2019 that Cal opened its season with a win.
“I was just really proud of our players … This is a player-led team, and our players showed out and they played with great poise and great leadership, especially down the stretch,” said Madsen following his team’s late-game win.
Despite being short two key transfers, Keonte Kennedy, who is out with a minor upper extremity injury and Jaylon Tyson, who was denied immediate eligibility, Madsen powered his players through a back-and-forth dogfight. Neither team gave an edge, keeping the game close with 15 lead changes and seven ties.
Cal was also left without sophomore forward Grant Newell after he exited the game late in the first half with an undisclosed injury. However, in just 16 minutes of action, Newell was perfect from the field, putting up eight points with two steals.
The storyline for Monday’s game was Cal’s efficient shooting night, an aspect that was in need of improvement from last season.
Jalen Celestine, who took the court for the first time in 607 days, had himself a night. The redshirt junior finished with 21 points, four rebounds and one assist. Celestine’s 21 points were not only a game-high, but also a career-high for the talented guard.
“I’m just grateful to be able to play again … It was just exciting” said Celestine. “We fought. We didn’t give up. We could’ve folded. There was one point in time where we were down in the second half and we really could have folded but we came together … (We) got a dub, so I’m proud of that.”
As well as Cal was shooting the ball, the team struggled to contain its opponent. St. Thomas converted eight three-pointers on an astonishing 57.1% clip from distance. However, Madsen’s adjustment to man-to-man defense and allowing his bigs to switch onto the opposing guards limited St. Thomas to just four three-pointers on 28.6% shooting in the second half.
After an underperforming first half, Jalen Cone found his groove midway through the second half. In a four-minute stretch where St. Thomas looked to run away with the game, scoring 10 points and extending its lead to four, Cone took over, scoring with all eight of Cal’s points.
Cone’s final three-pointer with 5:56 remaining narrowed the margin to just one, then sparking the blue and gold to outscore St. Thomas 12-6 for the remainder of the game.
Fardaws Aimaq was another transfer who had his fingerprints all over the game, registering his 78th career double-double with a 16-point, 11-rebound (five offensive) performance in his Cal debut. Aimaq looked dominant on both ends of the floor, controlling the glass, scoring at will and remaining active on the defensive end.
Aimaq’s late game steal setup Devin Askew’s go-ahead layup with 41 seconds remaining, breaking the near two-minute tie. Askew, who struggled to find his rhythm all night long, broke his slump with the game’s biggest shot — awarding Cal its first win of the season.
“We’ve tried to do everything that we need to do, which is listening to coach, following the game plan, playing as hard as we can. We have so much talent on this team that on any given night we’re going to figure out how to get it done. So, we’re just executing what we’re supposed to do and we did that,” Aimaq said.
The Bears will be back in action Friday at Haas Pavilion where they will host the 0-1 Pacific Tigers.