Cal had better hope he's right, because they find themselves as that ninth team today after literally giving away a victory to the Arizona Wildcats, 79-75 on Saturday at Haas Pavilion before 9124 disappointed fans.
Arizona coach Kevin O'Neil pulled no punches after the game. "We are very fortunate to get out of here with a win. Cal did a great job of keeping us off balance. I was in the NBA for seven years, and that kid Anderson is going to be in the NBA - he is very, very good."
"That kid Anderson" is, of course, Ryan Anderson, who WAS very, very good - near-perfect in the first half when he hit every shot he took, but did turn the ball over twice. He finished the game with 30 points on 10-of-13 shooting (3-for-3 from long distance) and 7-of-7 from the line, plus a team-leading seven rebounds. And it wasn't enough.
It's hard to say what would have been enough -- the Golden Bears outshot the Wildcats for the day, from two- and three-point range. They outshot Arizona from the charity stripe. After entering halftime with just eight rebounds, they dominated the boards in the second half, pulling down 24 to the Wildcats' eight. They racked up 23 assists to 15 for Arizona. Cal outscored Arizona 36-12 in the paint, and 12-6 on second-chance points. They allowed just a single transition basket in the entire game. They held center Jordan Hill, who came in averaging 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds, to eight points and four boards, with five of his points coming in the game's final 5:41. And all that wasn't enough.
Maybe the secret can be found in looking not at who did play, but who didn't play enough. Jamal Boykin only played 14 minutes in the game, but made his presence felt with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting, 2-of-3 free throws, and six rebounds, second-best for the Bears. He added in an assist and a block for good measure.
"Jamal was active on the boards," Braun said. "When we played bigger, he knocked down shots, He's still coming back off an injury, but we will look at his minutes. He played a lot better tonight than on Thursday - if he plays with that consistency, we will play him more than 14 minutes."
DeVon Hardin played inspired defense, holding Hill down completely - all three of Hill's baskets came with Hardin on the sidelines - but he, too, seemed to play sparingly, getting only 23 minutes. He was not in foul trouble, either, finishing the game with just two.
"I just control what I can in the game," Hardin said when asked how tough it was to sit at the scorer's table and watch Hill hit two baskets late in the game. " I came out with intensity from the beginning. I had a little pain in my back, but it's fine. I had to play through it, it is just muscle tightness."
Meanwhile, the game was tied with just a minute to play. Twice inside of 48 hours, Cal has had games in their hands against the Arizona teams at home, and twice they have slipped away. Thursday night, it was for want of a free throw down the stretch that would have secured the game with a 4-point lead, putting it out of ASU's reach.
Saturday, it was the turnovers. Eric Vierneisel, who played a pretty solid 31 minutes with seven points (on perfect shooting), three boards and six assists, committed just two turnovers, but both came in the game's final minute, and each led Nic Wise of Arizona to the line, where he made three of his four charity shots. The Wildcats' last nine points were from the free-throw line as then went 9-of-10 in the game's final 49 seconds.
"We ended up going small," O'Neil said. "We were struggling. Nobody could guard Anderson, and we struggled against the zone, Chase (Budinger) had some great shots in the second half and couldn't make them. We gave up baskets down the stretch when we could have stretched it out. The two (road) games we've lost (in the Pac-10) we managed well down the stretch, got shots and didn't make them. Tonight we got the shots and made them."
Braun saw good even in the disappointing outcome. "For the most part we did OK - we'd like to get back the turnover on the baseline on the post-up entry (in the game's final minute)."
"We asked our players to make a concerted effort today. We made 36 points in the paint, 23 assists; we asked them to get back in transition against a very good transition team, and we gave up two points on the fast break. We challenged our guys on rebounding and did that - 32 to 20 and we gave them only 6 offensive rebounds."
But there were clearly problems - something had to lead to this bitter defeat. "The big thorn for us was turnovers - 17 lost possessions - those are opportunities we gave up," the coach explained. "Our team has to understand the value of the ball, in some of the decisions we make. I thought most of those (turnovers) were unforced, and that hurts. Sometimes in the heat of the game, you get pressure, you will make mistakes, but I thought most of those mistakes were Cal's mistakes. Jerome's trying to split the double-team will be the rewind in our film session."
Ryan Anderson turned in his second straight 30-point performance, becoming the first Cal player to do that in back-to-back Pac-10 games since Ed Gray's 33 at OSU and 30 at Oregon in January of 1997. His streak of 15+ rebound games was halted at two, but it had been even longer for a Bear to have back-to-back 15 board games than 30 point contests - Brian Hendrick was the last player to do it for Cal in February of 1992.
Braun Reacts to Bad Call
Arizona led at halftime, 39-37, but Cal didn't trail the Wildcats until the final 2:38 of the first session. Sophomore forward Chase Budinger was blistering hot in the first half, hitting six-of-eight shots and both free throws for 17 points at the break - he matched his season's average of 16.8 ppg with just over 16 minutes played.
The second half was a different story, as Cal switched Vierneisel onto Budinger, and employed both a 2-3 and 3-2 zone for significant portions of the game, which seemed to flummox the Wildcats. Budinger was 1-for-7 from the floor after the intermission, and missed all four three-point shots he took. Even with the tighter defense, though, Arizona had a season-high 11 three-point baskets.
"I thought our matchups were good in the zones," Braun said. "We played some 2-3 and some 3-2, but our defense got better as a whole. We lost Wise in the second half a little, he beat us on penetration, but we did a better job on Bayless and Budinger."
Jerryd Bayless put up 24 points to lead the Wildcats, including three free throws on what appeared to be a phantom foul, called well after his 22-foot attempt bounced off the iron.
Cal now has a week to get ready for a very good defensive team in Stanford - never mind that it's arch-rival Stanford, they just need a win to try to preserve some of the momentum that built their 6-0 start, which has since seen them drop to 11-6 (2-4 in the conference).
"The only thing I'm concerned about now is my team," said the senior pivotman Hardin, "us getting better as a unit. No matter who our opponent is, if we don't correct what's going wrong, it doesn't matter who we play. The next assignment is Cal. We have to work on ourselves, and once we do that, then we will start focusing on Stanford."
Cal's problem is two-fold - finding enough minutes for the big men who are playing well, which includes Anderson, Hardin, Harper Kamp and Boykin, and solving the difficulties of point guard. Good basketball teams can get away with mediocre point guard play, but good March teams can not. Point guards carry teams into the NCAA Tournament.
"Point guard is about consistency," Braun said. "That's what our team needs - it's the hardest position to play on the floor. (You) have to be consistent, dependable, make solid plays and decisions, and be solid on defense. I'm not so sure you need to score as much as make great decisions."
Defense is as much about desire as technique - great defensive teams take it personally, and Cal's players have not shown a lot of emotion and fire on the floor recently. Both Braun and Hardin talked about that.
"Harper and Jamal have a lot of fire in them," Braun said. "Ryan does, too - he was hurting as bad as I've ever seen after today's game. Those guys, though, are not only competitive and competitors, they have a lot of toughness to them. They aren't afraid to use their bodies, aren't afraid to use fouls."
"I'd like to see our whole team get a little more fiery. Nikola gets spirited. You can't wait to see how you are playing before you get that spirit. Lots of times you wait to see how you are doing and how the game is going."
Hardin was more cautious and to the point: "Hopefully we won't get too mad and play out of control - I think we just need a greater will to win, to get the ability to close out games at the end. The hunger is there, definitely, nobody likes losing."
If looking up from ninth place doesn't give a team the will to win, what can?
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