Arizona State's Curtain of Distraction featured men in blue and gold body suits and rubber unicorn masks riding, first, a single broomstick with a horse head, and then one another. California came into the game as the Pac-12's worst free throw shooting team (65.4%), but, when the Bears needed to finish out the regular season with a win on the road against the Sun Devils, maybe a bit of distraction was all they needed, as Cal hit 18 of 25 from the charity stripe, including seven its last eight to finish off a 68-65 win in Tempe.
The win ensured that the Bears (21-9, 11-6 in Pac-12) would get a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament, and not play their first game until Thursday. Cal will play the winner of No. 11-seed Arizona State vs. No. 6-seed Oregon State. Cal earned the No. 3 seed by virtue of its 1-1 record against regular-season conference champion Oregon. No. 4-seed Arizona was 0-1 against the Ducks this season.
Senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, who hit 62.5% of his tries at the line this season coming into Saturday's game, went 8-of-8 at the charity stripe, including hitting both of his crucial final tries with 30 seconds to go to put the Bears up 64-60.
Cal trailed by as many as 10 points with 18:39 left in the game, but came back in large part thanks to Wallace. After going just 2-of-3 from the floor in the first half, Wallace poured in 19 of his game-high 24 points on 5-of-8 shooting, 1-of-3 from three-point range and all eight of his freebies after the break. Wallace pulled down a game-high seven rebounds over the course of the evening, and dished out five assists, as the Bears overcame early ball sticking to register 13 helpers on 22 field goals.
Wallace had to take over, given the fact that Jaylen Brown and Jabari Bird went a combined 3-for-13, with Bird having his worst first half since Nov. 26, when he went 0-for-1 for the entire game against San Diego State. Bird finished with just one point against Arizona State.
The Sun Devils (15-15, 5-12) went on a 19-6 run over the final 9:43 of the half, with the Bears going 3:39 without scoring a basket, until Jordan Mathews hit a floater in the lane at the buzzer, off a pass from Wallace, who, instead of driving himself to try and force a lay-up as he did in the final seconds against Arizona on Thursday, drove and dished to Mathews.
Cal had started the game 8-of-14 shooting, but then went ice cold. During the final 9:43 of the first, the Bears went 3-for-10 with six turnovers, while Arizona State got three offensive rebounds. Those extra possessions gave the Sun Devils 11 first-half points off of turnovers, and five second-chance points.
Obinna Oleka was particularly troublesome for the Bears, as the 6-foot-7 junior pulled down four rebounds and scored five points in the first, helping draw attention away from Eric Jacobsen, who scored eight points on 4-of-6 shooting as the Bears looked helpless down low. In contrast, the Sun Devils packed the paint, and held Kameron Rooks and Kingsley Okoroh to just two points in the first half, while freshman Ivan Rabb had to scratch and claw to go 3-of-5 for seven points, only pulling down two rebounds.
Cal won the rebounding battle early, after starting with a 12-7 advantage on the boards, Arizona State went on a rebounding binge, out-rebounding the Bears 16-10. While Cal did win the battle on the boards ultimately, 36-32, the work down low clearly exhausted the bigs, as did the man-to-man defense from the Sun Devils.
Thanks to the lack of shooting from Brown and Bird, Cal was 3-of-12 from three-point land at the under-16 time out in the second half, while Arizona State was 5-of-12. Then, something broke.
A throw-down dunk with the right hand by Wallace off the bounce apes from Brown on the back side with 10:17 to go brought the Bears within four.
The Bears then forced a shot clock violation -- one of two in the second half -- on Tra Holder, and on the next possession, Mathews nailed a three with 9:26 to go. Wallace hits two free throws with 8:46 left to give Cal its first lead since 6:40 in the first half, capping off a 9-0 Cal run from 10:56 to 7:56.
Arizona State found itself having gone scoreless for 3:34, having hit one of its last eight field goals and missing its last four.
Jacobsen broke the spell with a lay-in off a perfectly-angled entry pass from Kodi Justice to re-take the lead, 50-48, with 7:33 to go, but, with 5:25 to go, Wallace passed up a three, drove and finished off the glass with the right hand to tie things up. Arizona State had made 2 of its last 13 field goals, from 13:12 to 4:58, and during that span, the Bears went 5-of-11.
With 4:21 to go, Wallace was trapped on the left side, and passed inside to Rabb on the left block. Rabb, drawing a double team, found Wallace again outside, and the senior out of Bakersfield (Calif.) hit a three to give the Bears the lead for good.
Jacobsen had a chance to stanch the bleeding, drawing Rooks's fourth foul with 55.6 remaining, but his first free throw hit off the front of the rim, getting the Sun Devils within two. Wallace wisely called a time out on the in-bound as he saw the Arizona State press, and was fouled on the ensuing in-bounds, making both of his free throws and helping Cal put the nail in the coffin.