The Cal Bears’ awful NCAA Tournament experienced started well before they even got on the plane to Spokane, Washington for game one, but now they head back home after an awful loss to the Hawaii Warriors.
Entering their first NCAA Tournament since 2013, the California Golden Bears seemed like a perfect candidate for the upset in the Round of 64. Cal, which earned the fourth seed in the South Region for their best seeding in school history, was pitted against the 13th-seeded Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, a team many considered under-seeded in the tournament. Hawaii finished the season 27-5 and 13-3 in Conference play to earn a share of the Big West regular season title, and then claimed the Conference Tournament championship to earn their automatic bid to the big dance.
As if their opponent wasn’t tough enough, Cal faced plenty adversity in the week leading up to the tournament. On Monday, assistant coach Yann Hufnagel was fired because of a sexual assault scandal, just the latest in a string on campus. Head coach Cuonzo Martin is being investigated for his role, and whether he handled the situation properly. On Wednesday, senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, Cal’s leading scorer, assister, and stealer, fractured a bone in his hand, the same hand that was injured in January, and would miss the tournament, effectively ending his college career. On top of that, Cal’s star freshman Jaylen Brown entered the game going through his worst slump of the season.
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And then, to add to that mixture, junior guard Jabari Bird experienced back spasms during warmups, taking a player who started 22 games and averaged 10.4 points out of the lineup. Boil some water, stir all these ingredients in a pot, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for a 13th seed upsetting a fourth seed. Hawaii baked it up perfectly, and served it up in the form of a 77-66 victory to earn their first ever win in the NCAA Tournament.
Hawaii opened the scoring, as senior guard Roderick Bobbitt dropped in a floater from the middle of the lane. Cal responded with six straight points, all on driving lay-ups from Jordan Mathews and Jaylen Brown. After that, Cal struggled to find a rhythm. They turned the ball over five times in the first eight minutes, and found themselves behind 14-13 when Bobbitt hit a long jumper. The Warriors stretched their lead to seven as Cal had no answer on the offensive end. Cal’s defense got them back in it, slicing the lead down to just one before Hawaii ended the half with five straight points.
When the first 20 minutes expired, the Bears were looking at the wrong end of a 36-30 score. They were in foul trouble, as point guard Sam Singer, starting for the injured Wallace, and Jaylen Brown both had three personals on their ledger, and Mathews had two. Cal turned the ball over nine times in the first half, and made just nine field goals. With two of their top five scorers out and another contributing just two points, Cal was fortunate to be behind by only six.
The second half began and Hawaii wasted little time pushing the lead to 11, the largest advantage for either side to that point. When Cal needed a big shot, Mathews came up again, hitting a long straightaway three (the 200th of his career) to stem the tide and bring the lead back to eight. Singer found some confidence, attacking the rim hard and scoring six straight for Cal to bring them back within four. Kameron Rooks, playing with three fouls, finished an old-fashioned three-point play to make it just a one point game.
Hawaii scored another four in a row to give themselves some breathing room. They were able to get the advantage back up to eight, and Brown fouled out for Cal with over six minutes to play. On the next possession, Hawaii’s Michael Thomas dropped on a three to stretch it to 11, and Mathews answered, as he’s done time and time again for the Bears, with a three of his own to give Cal a semblance of life. A Hawaii turnover led to another Singer lay-in, and it became a two-possession game again.
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Cal couldn’t answer from there. Hawaii extended the lead back to double-digits with 3:09 to play, and the Bears didn’t have the firepower to get back into the game. Hawaii stiff armed Cal as they tried to make another comeback, and came away with the 77-66 win.
The Bears had their opportunities. In the second half, Big West Player of the Year Stefan Jankovic picked up his fourth personal foul with 16 minutes to play. Big West Conference Tournament MVP Aaron Valdes picked up his fourth foul with over eight minutes to play. With the Warriors’ top two scorers on the bench, Cal couldn’t make the push they needed.
Mathews was the Bears’ leading scorer, dropping in 23 points in his first game as a starter since January 14th. Singer added a season-high 12 points, while Rabb scored 13 and grabbed 12 rebounds for his 11th double-double of the season. Brown finished the game shooting 1-of-6 for four points, and turned the ball over seven times. If he declares for the NBA Draft, he’ll have finished his college career averaging 7.8 points and shooting 20.8 percent in his final five game.
On the Hawaii side, senior guard Quincy Smith scored a team-leading 19 points despite foul trouble of his own, and Bobbitt added 17 with a team-high seven rebounds. Jankovic scored 16 plus five rebounds.
After earning their highest-seeding ever, the Bears are headed home after just one game for the seventh time in 19 tournament appearances. For Hawaii, they will play the winner of the matchup between the fifth-seeded Maryland Terrapins and 12th-seeded South Dakota State.
Cal football player Vic Enwere already has visions of revenge for the Hawaii Warriors. Cal opens their 2016 football season against the Rainbow Warriors in Sydney, Australia.