LAS VEGAS -- California hung with No. 1-seed Arizona as long as it could in the Pac-12 Tournament Quarterfinals on Thursday, staying within six points for the first 22 minutes, thanks to stout offensive rebounding and eight Wildcats turnovers.
But, as good as Bears senior David Kravish was down low – pulling down 12 rebounds on the day – he was a woeful from the field, and with 2:41 left in the game, and the Wildcats pulling away, he nearly came to blows with Arizona big man Brandon Ashley, rolling over the Wildcats junior and pushing him, before the two came nose-to-nose while the Pac-12 official stood and watched.
That emotional outburst was uncharacteristic of the soft-spoken senior captain, but it was too little, too late for the Bears, who fell 73-51 to Arizona.
“Originally, it was a basketball play,” Ashley said. “I think toward the end of the game, emotions kind of get involved. Everybody wants to win. It just kind of escalated a little bit. Nothing really happened. I have nothing but respect for David Kravish, and I believe he feels the same way about me and we’ll just move forward from that.”
Ashley – who had 15 points, 7 rebounds and two blocks – was a mismatch problem all afternoon for the Bears, as Jordan Mathews, Tyrone Wallace, Dwight Tarwater and Christian Behrens guarded him at times, with Mathews twice guarding Ashley after switching on ball screens, something that Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin said was done intentionally.
“You game plan, you go over your scouting report, and, for us, if you defend them as a guard, you switch and you front the post,” Martin said. “In that case, with Jordan Mathews, he didn’t front the post. As you look at the percentage, Ashley, he plays on the perimeter; he’s not really a low post guy like that. We’ll take those percentages every day of the week.”
Kravish was occupied with Kaleb Tarczewski, who – while not the offensive force he’s been during the season -- kept Kravish completely in-check on the defensive end.
“They’re tremendous players,” Kravish said of Tarczewski and Ashley. “They’re good at positioning themselves and getting in spots for the guards to find them under the basket. They’re the two best bigs on the No. 5 team in the nation.”
After a career-high 25-point night against Washington State, Kravish went 3-for-13 from the field, and took just one shot in the post after halftime, thanks to the double-team defense of Tarczewski and Ashley.
“We respect Kravish a lot, especially after last night’s game,” said Miller. “We wanted to make his post catches hard. Thought a couple times when we trapped him, it really worked to our advantage. Sometimes, when you trap a good low post player, you make everybody tentative, those that throw it to him and obviously the recipient of the ball.”
Ashley and Tarczewski, Miller noted, are experienced, as is Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who also helped down low, and they played with veteran savvy around Kravish.
“That’s tough when you don’t establish a post presence,” said Martin. “I thought we did that in the first half. I think he was 1-for-7 in the first half. But, we’ll go down to the post, I think we don’t get the ball in the post, it’s hard to get to the free-throw line to get post production. You slow the offense down, get spacing, they double the post. You can find your shooters, but you have to get production around the rim to be successful against a good team.”
The Bears (18-15) out-rebounded Arizona (29-3) 21-19 in the first half, and despite shooting just 33.3% on the half, were still firmly in the game, trailing 33-27 at the break. Early in the half, when Cal held a 12-10 lead, Hollis-Jefferson led a 7-0 run for the Wildcats, hitting a breakaway slam dunk, drawing a foul on his next trip down the floor (a hard foul by Jabari Bird to prevent another crowd-pleasing dunk), nailed one of two free throws, pulling down a defensive rebound and pushing it up to Stanley Johnson for the bucket and starting another run-out that led to two more free throws. He added a block during that stretch, and on the night, was an absolute terror on defense.
Hollis-Jefferson finished with 10 points, 6 rebounds, one assist, two blocks and two steals, and played a crucial role in Arizona’s 9-0 run from 17:57 to 15:49 in the second half, as the Wildcats went from a five-point lead to a 14-point margin. Hollis-Jefferson scored four points on a dunk and a lay-up, and pulling down a defensive rebound that turned into points during that stretch.
“Rondae does everything for us,” said Wildcats head coach Sean Miller. “He made some big plays defensively, shot block, and I thought a couple times in transition, he really ignited the action. He’s, from a versatility perspective, maybe as versatile as any player that’s playing college basketball. I say it all the time: He guards a point guard and a power forward in the same game. We have great respect for Gonzaga, and if you look at their season, they’re a very difficult team to defend. Rondae guarded [Kevin] Pangos and [Kyle] Wiltjer in the same game. If you can name another guy that can do that, I’ll be more than happy to hear the answer.”
Hollis-Jefferson was particularly pestering against Bird, and Mathews, who did not have the kinds of games they had against Washington State – one of the worst defensive teams in the nation – against the Wildcats – one of the best defensive teams in the nation.
The pair combined to go 3-for-8 from three-point land, and the rest of the team went 1-for-6 from beyond the arc, with a 1-for-4 afternoon from Wallace.
Wallace finished the game 8-for-20, but after an early spurt where he went 3-for-4 over the first 5:32, he was largely ineffective. He finished the game with a team-high 19 points, and dished out five assists.
The Bears’ season may not be over quite yet, as there still remains the possibility that they can choose to enter the CBI Tournament, a 16-team bracket with games held on-campus, for an entry fee. When asked what his expectations were for playing beyond the Pac-12 Tournament, Martin simply said, “We’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see.”