A. J. had just missed a somewhat ill advised 3-point attempt, and on a quick outlet pass, a Santa Barbara player broke away for what seemed to be an easy score. But A. J. never gave up on his game, and in spite of that 3 point miss, he streaked down the court just to the left of the Santa Barbara player who was coming in towards the basket from the right. As they closed toward the hoop in full flight, A. J. somehow - and this is the miracle of the play - insinuated his body around and then even in front of the hard charging opponent, who from his right side was trying to lift up a shot towards the basket. And then, going full speed backwards for a moment in time, A. J. was able to reach out to the opponent's right and deflect the ball away.
There was of course an immediate collision and heap of players on the floor, but no fouls were called since no one was in control of the ball. And then in the resulting scramble, a jump ball was called, and Cal regained possession.
This was the game winner. Had Santa Barbara scored on that easy lay up, the score would have been 52-51, a virtual tie game going into the last seconds. Instead, it was 52-49, Cal's possession. No wonder Assistant Coach Joe Pasternack has called A. J. maybe the best 1-on-1 defender in the country.
Score at the moment: 52 - 49. Final score: 67 - 60. And Cal didn't score a single field goal in that interval? How could that happen? Let me count the ways:
Amit Tamir to the line, got 2, 54 - 49 with 2:10 to play.
Joe Shipp at the line got 2: 56 - 49.
Santa Barbara got a three from the right baseline, 56 - 52, then slapped a furious full court press on Cal.
Midgley to the line got 2: 58 - 52.
Santa Barbara got a three: 58 - 55.
On an inbounds pass, UCSB caught an intentional foul. That put A.J. to the line for 2, he got 1: 59 - 55.
On another inbounds pass, Midgley was fouled, went to the line, got 2: 61 - 55.
Santa Barbara continued their full-court press. Midgley was fouled again, went to the line, scored 1: 62 - 55 with 45 seconds left.
At this point, Cal had its best free-throw shooters on the court (not a bad idea) in Shipp, Wethers, Tamir, and Midgley, with Diggs available for quickness, defense, and passing ability.
Perhaps there was a Santa Barbara three at this point? (My notes are not exact). Call it 62 - 58.
And on the next in-bounds sequence? What else? Wethers to the line, got 2: 64 - 58 with 00:33 left.
Somewhere in here, Santa Barbara got another two - but then came the second "play of the game". On an inbounds pass by Cal, the ball was deflected off a Cal player and was headed out of bounds. That would have given Santa Barbara possession for a last-gasp effort to get back into the game. Instead, Midgley, diving full length out of bounds, was able to reach the ball and actually make a good pass back to Shipp before he landed on the floor.
And then, a few moments later? A. J. to the line for two: 66 - 60.
And the capper: Wethers to the line for two, got one. Final score: 67 - 60.
What does this litany tell us? That Cal can shoot free throws, at least this particular collection of players can. That will win some games. But it also tells us that Cal had a battle on its hands down the stretch that maybe could have been avoided.
In phase one, this was a laugher. Cal was ahead 13 - 0. Midway through the second quarter had a 19 point lead, and was dominating every aspect of the game, taking virtually every available rebound. This is not to say that Cal should have had an easy time with this opponent, they did after all beat USC this year, and they were obviously a well coached, poised team that did not lose its cool when things went badly in the first half.
Instead, they made adjustments at half-time, came out determined to increase their share of rebounds by collapsing in after each shot, and they began to get the second and third shots that significantly increase offensive efficiency. And Cal went flat too, playing the game but not forcing it, and Santa Barbara climbed back into it.
Until A. J. shut the door.