Cal's fading at-large hopes may have flatlined with loss to Colorado

LAS VEGAS At the end of a crushing Pac-12 quarterfinal loss in a game his team probably had to win, Cal coach Mike Montgomery tried to insist the Bears still had hope of hearing their name during Sunday's selection show. 

Judging from their body language, however, not even his players believed it.

Senior guard Justin Cobbs sat at the far end of the podium with his chin resting in his hands and his eyes red from crying after the fourth-seeded Bears lost 59-56 to fifth-seeded Colorado on Thursday. Sophomore guard Tyrone Wallace sat alongside Cobbs, head down, eyes locked on the ground and a somber expression on his face.

The only one willing to make even a halfhearted case for the Bears was Montgomery, who insisted neither he nor the pundits who suggested Cal needed a win Thursday have any idea where the team actually stands. Only the selection committee, Montgomery said, can decide whether Cal's 19-13 record merits inclusion in the NCAA tournament. 

"There's a committee that knows, but I'm not on that committee," Montgomery said. "Can we compete in the tournament? Yes. Are there others that will be in that we're better than? Absolutely. But at this point it's out of our hands. The job needed to be done for sure before. Now we're at the mercy and we made it tough on ourselves." 

It would have been hard to imagine Cal facing the grim reality of the NIT when the Bears started 5-0 in Pac-12 play or when they upset Arizona on Feb. 1. Cal failed to maintain that momentum, however, dropping nine of its final 14 games because of erratic defensive intensity and insufficient wing scoring to make up for it. 

The result is a resume uninspiring besides the Arizona win. Solid victories over Oregon, Stanford and Colorado also help, but the Bears have a mediocre No. 53 RPI, bad losses to UC Santa Barbara and USC and a 4-10 record against the RPI top 50. That's a resume that doesn't stack up particularly well against the Pac-12's top six teams or bubble teams from around the nation. 

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Cal had a chance to add another quality win against the same Colorado team the Bears beat in their regular season finale, but they didn't match the Buffs' intensity in the first half and trailed by nine at halftime. They strung together enough stops to rally to within one late in the second half but made a series of critical mistakes that prevented them from ever taking the lead.

Sam Singer missed a layup that would have given Cal the lead with 5:33 to go. Wallace missed an ill-advised potential tying 3-pointer two minutes later that had Montgomery stamping his feet on the sideline. And Cobbs clanked a pull-up 3-pointer early in the shot clock with 1:43 to go instead of attacking the rim off the dribble.

"The things you know you struggle with always come back to haunt you," Montgomery said. "I thought we didn't play hard enough in the first half. They competed harder than us coming off the fact they lost to us. They out-rebounded us pretty substantially. Second half we got a little life and had multiple opportunities to go ahead, but just made critical mistakes in critical situations."

How could Cal not match Colorado's energy when the it was the Bears who were playing for their NCAA tournament life? "I don't know," Cobbs said. "I can't answer that."

Is there anything Cobbs would do differently on the pull-up jump shot he left short with Cal down two and 16 seconds left? "Nope, you've just got to make shots," Cobbs said. 

And does Cobbs have any hope the Bears will get a reprieve from the selection commitee and return to the NCAA tournament? "I hope so," Cobbs said tersely. "I really hope so."

So, yes, slim hope remains. But it's fading fast. 

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