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Cal Pulls off Shocking Upset of Pac-12 Leading Washington

NCAA Basketball: Washington at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of a miserable season, the Cal Bears had little reason for optimism against Washington. The Dawgs entered the game as 13 point road favorites. Cal had not won a game in the Pac-12 and had totaled 15 consecutive losses in total. The problem was, nobody told Cal that they didn’t have a chance.

The Bears started hot from the field and stayed that way most of the night. They used a combination of intelligent play design and sub-standard Husky defense to keep UW at bay. In spite of offensive theatrics from David Crisp and some good shot-making from Jaylen Nowell down the stretch, the vaunted UW defense never stepped up enough to put them back in charge. The result was an embarrassing loss that could very well carry over into the final few games of the conference season.

Signs of the defensive struggles appeared immediately. Unlike many Husky opponents who have struggled to adapt to the zone early, Cal made four of its first eight shots to tally 10 points before the first official timeout. Fortunately, the Husky backcourt came out even hotter; Crisp and Nowell combined for 14 of the team’s 16 points with four threes and 5-6 shooting overall. Each of the team’s first six shots were assisted, with four of those assists coming from Matisse Thybulle.

Cal continued to find room by dribbling into the middle of the Husky zone and kicking the ball out to open shooters or finding cutters to the hoop. The Bears also assisted a high percentage of their looks, which led to 9-15 shooting and a tie game at 24 midway through the first half. Their combination of strategy, execution, and hot shooting allowed Cal to open up an eight-point lead late in the half that nobody predicted. In particular, Cal’s screens on the on-ball defender and their willingness to swing passes cross court forced the baseline defenders to scramble. While the Huskies might have looked out of position at times, Cal’s game plan significantly contributed to the defensive struggles.

Connor Vanover was the primary beneficiary of Cal’s offensive execution. The gargantuan center racked up 12 before the half, mostly on assisted dunks or alley-oops. While Paris Austin had a meager three points in the first half, his dribble penetration created openings that allowed him to put up six assists. As a team, Cal managed a remarkable 15 assists on their first 18 made shots. For reference, the Huskies gave up a total of 22 assists in their last two games combined.

While the first half defense was a house of horrors, the Husky offense did enough to keep them in the game. The team made 10 threes in the half, five of them coming from the scorching-hot left hand of Crisp. He accumulated 21 points in the half. The final three came on a difficult buzzer-beater that closed the gap down to a single point and gave the Dawgs some needed momentum at the break.

The Husky defense improved early in the second half, but the hot shooting that buoyed them in the first period also dissipated. Crisp continued to find his shot and made three buckets in the first few minutes to put the Huskies back on top. The Dawgs couldn’t sustain momentum, though, and Cal maintained a narrow lead through most of the first eight minutes.

Things went from bad to worse for UW as Cal opened up a 67-60 lead with additional smart passing and several offensive rebounds. The Huskies struggled to match while their hot shooting from the first half left them and they failed to find a Plan B.

With the offense sputtering, it was time for Nowell to go to work. He made a short jumper off an offensive rebound. Two possessions later, he got fouled after another offensive rebound and knocked down his free throws to bring the deficit back to one possession. When a Justice Sueing swung the momentum with a tip dunk, Nowell answered with a three and a lay-up to tie the game and put the Bears on their heels.

Both defenses buckled down over the ensuing minutes. Cal took a one-point lead inside the final two minutes. Nowell turned the ball over on a slip-and-fall. Cal turned it over after a shot clock violation that took the clock under a minute. Nowell went to the basket and couldn’t finish due to a contest from Vanover. Cal made two free throws, but the Huskies missed multiple attempts to tie from three to end the game.

The loss certainly ends the momentum UW built with excellent defensive performances against superior teams. Not only will the Huskies have to show more intensity at that end against Stanford, they will have to learn the difficult lesson that they can lose to any team on any night if they don’t perform up to their standard.

Game Notes

-Steve Lavin aptly pointed out that the Husky defense did not put enough pressure on the ball in the first half. The response? Thybulle picked off an entry pass for his first steal on Cal’s initial possession of the second half.

-Cal’s fan-base showed about the level of support one would expect for a 5-22 team without a conference win. Although the students cheered as much as they could, every low-angle shot revealed more empty seats than filled ones. At least those students were rewarded for their loyalty.

-As if Vanover’s 7’3 frame didn’t attract enough attention, he chose a hairstyle as awkward as his size. He buzzed the sides up to a pair of braids that merge into a man bun at the back of his head.

-Cal generally chose to front Dickerson defensively down low in their zone. Although the Huskies looked for him from time to time, they struggled to get him the ball with his back to the basket, which minimized his impact at that end. When he was able to contribute, it was mostly as the roll man in the pick-and-roll.

-Darius McNeil scored 18 for the Bears in the first half, but went cold after the half. He didn’t score again until he split a pair of free throws inside two minutes.

-The Husky bench provided very little support. Dom Green made a pair of first half threes, but went cold with the rest of the team after the break. In fact, a single Naz Carter free throw (his only point of the game) was the bench’s cumulative contribution in the second half.