BERKELEY – Did laser tag keep California's Tournament hopes alive? Maybe, and maybe not, but it certainly had a bearing on how the Bears came out on Saturday, downing Colorado in overtime, 66-65, in the regular season finale.
"I didn't finish last," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery of Thursday's team-building outing, which was then followed by a team-only meeting that was centered on, as the players said, ‘Team, team, team.'
"That honor went to Jabari Bird," Montgomery continued. "I'm glad he was there. He moves too slow. Easy target."
"I felt as though we just came together as a team," said senior Richard Solomon. "We took some time off and got together as a team. We had a little discussion and I think that really helped. It was just a whole different team here, we were all just playing together, playing collectively. I think that's what got it done for us tonight."
Cal (19-12, 10-8 in Pac-12) got behind early, but was constantly within striking distance throughout the first half. The Bears did close to within three at the break, as senior Justin Cobbs nailed a three at the buzzer from the top of the key to make it 31-28.
"It's about the team," said Cobbs. "It's not about offense, it's not about missing shots, and it's not a factor anymore. That's not what we want our identity to be like when shots go down, we don't play hard or we don't defend. I think we did a great job staying together, picking each other up, moving our defense, staying active, and doing all the little things."
In the first half Cal's offense came out sluggish as they shot 39.3% from the field, resulting in a paltry just 28 points, while the Buffaloes shot 44.8% from the field and 42.9% from three, going 3-of-7.
"There was a lot of energy in the huddle," said Montgomery. "Nobody seemed to want to throw in the towel, nobody was down, and they just kept talking about getting a stop. For a lot of teams in our league, it's about how much fight you have, and if you're willing to fight through stuff. For a lot of us, it makes the difference between winning and losing. For us being able to do that, I felt really good about that and that made all the difference in the world."
After halftime, it was more of the same. Besides a 9-0 run by the Buffs for their largest lead of the game, there was no major movement in the score line as the teams went back and forth. Cal finished the second half on a 12-5 run, tying the game on two Cobbs free throws in the dying seconds. That sent the game to an overtime period that had Haas Pavilion rocking. Despite missing their last 10 field goals, and not scoring a single field goal in overtime, the Bears did score seven points in the extra period, with all of them coming from the free throw line.
"There was probably three other games we could have had this result and won by one, that we didn't and lost close," Montgomery said. "This time it was our turn and the good news for us, we get the fourth seed. If at the start of the season, you told me we'd be in the top four, I'd say I like that, and that's where we are. At the end of the day, we're fourth and that's what we wanted to do."
The Bears began the game with the same line up that they've gone with in the last seven games, with Cobbs, Tyrone Wallace, and Ricky Kreklow in the backcourt. In addition to a game high 21 points from Cobbs, David Kravish played well as he added an additional 14 points. Kravish's frontcourt partner and departing senior Solomon added yet another double-double to his season tally, as he scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Those three were the only Cal players in double-figures as they again struggled to shoot the ball.
The Bears shot 35% from the field and 29% from three, while Colorado was only marginally better, shooting 40% from the field and 33% from three. Cal was destroyed in the rebounding battle, 45-35, but won the turnover battle, 12-5, which allowed for a 13-6 points-off-turnovers margin.
"We could have given in coming into the game," said Montgomery. "We made some bad plays or missed some shots and got down, we could have given in, but we made some big plays. I told them going in ‘team,team,team' and that's what we emphasized and that's what we got. Not everyone was perfect but we did a pretty good job."
The Buffaloes were led by Xavier Johnson, who seemed to score at-will in the first half against the usually strong Cal interior defense. He contributed 24 points, and six rebounds on the inside, while Josh Scott and Askia Booker added 10 and 11, respectively.
"There are very few losses throughout the year where you can tell your guys that you are proud of them, and you can live with the result because of the effort you made and everything that went into the game," said Colorado head coach Tad Boyle. "Tonight was one of those situations. I am proud of our guys for the effort, and we almost beat a good Cal team here on the road."
This was a win that Cal knew they had to secure to keep their hopes of an at-large bid to the tournament alive, and despite their poor shooting efforts, they pulled out a victory. The team was helped by a player's only meeting were they stressed the importance of the team, but also by a laser tag outing set to take their minds off basketball. It may have been unconventional, but whatever they did worked, and now they will continue on to the Pac-12 tournament as the four seed, where they will get a bye and then play the winner of Colorado versus Washington State/USC on Thursday at 2:30 PM PST.
"I think it's a sigh of relief," said Cobbs. "We've been through so [many] ups and downs, and losing games that we should have won, just things not clicking. To finally go out with a win, it gives us a little confidence going into the Pac-12 Tournament. We're excited."
Tag, You're In
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