The Bears face the Pacific Tigers at 8 p.m. this Friday in Haas Pavilion, a building that was filled with energy on Monday for Cal’s opener against St Thomas.
Coming off a sixteen-game losing streak to end last year, the Bears needed more than a win. They needed some catharsis. And they found their moment in the final stretch of Monday’s game.
With seventeen seconds remaining and Cal leading by four points, St. Thomas won possession on a nonshooting foul. On their first attempt to inbound, the blue and gold smothered all of the Tommies’ options. St. Thomas called a timeout to avoid a five-second violation.
On the next attempt, the Tommies were able to inbound the ball, but it resulted in an immediate trap. Two Cal defenders cornered the ball handler and forced a second timeout. On their third try, St. Thomas finally was able to take a dribble, but turned it over on an out-of-control drive to the rim.
It’s fitting for the Bears to clinch their first win under Mark Madsen with defensive hustle. When Shaquille O’Neal played with Cal’s new coach, he remembered Madsen “killing him” and “beating him up bad” on defense in practice. One doesn’t get the nickname “Mad Dog” for no reason. Madsen is asking his whole team to bring the defensive intensity he used to be known for.
“By the time we made our fourth adjustment, our guys were more locked in,” Madsen said. “The communication was better and we did a much better job of limiting the open threes.”
A key reason why Cal’s defense is versatile enough for all these adjustments is its new big man, Fardaws Aimaq. The sixth-year transfer is reunited with the coach that led him to two straight WAC Defensive Player of the Year awards at Utah Valley. Madsen conceded that he should have had Fardaws to switch onto St. Thomas’ point guard sooner in the game.
Once Aimaq began switching onto shooters in the pick-and-roll, it shut down the Tommies’ perimeter attack. The 6’11 forward has the mobility to stay in front of shifty shooters. Aimaq is excited about his new team’s defensive potential.
“We can switch if we need to, we can hedge, we can ice, we can do a lot of different things,” Aimaq said.
Their new defensive anchor isn’t the only reason why the Bears are feeling good. While the fans exploded in catharsis at Cal’s defensive stand against St. Thomas, the players did not erupt into that feeling until the game was over. After the final whistle blew, the team flocked to their leading scorer, Jalen Celestine. The junior forward missed all of last season with a knee injury, then scored a career-high 21 points in his first game back. The smiles on everyone’s faces told the whole story.
This Friday night, the Bears will try to keep the good vibes rolling against a Pacific team that just lost its home opener to Sam Houston. And if the energy is even close to what it was last Monday, it will be a must-watch matchup.