In the lair of the bear

In the end, two players  from Catholic schools in the East Bay led Cal past Saint Mary’s, a Catholic school in the East Bay, 63-59, on Saturday in Berkeley.

If God is, indeed, a Gael as the web site proclaims, He could not have been happy with Jabari Bird, the 6-5 guard out of Salesian High School in Richmond, CA, who made the heart-breaking three-pointer with 15.2 seconds left that brought Cal from one down, 59-58, to two up, 61-59.

Nor would he have smiled upon Ivan Rabb, the 6-11 forward from Oakland’s Bishop O’Dowd High School, who tormented Saint Mary’s all day long with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots.

But Cal fans, 10,000+ of whom packed Haas Pavilion, were certainly pleased with the duo that led the Bears to a white-knuckle win they desperately needed. After sleep-walking through three lackluster wins over lackluster competition — Seattle, Wyoming and Incarnate Word — Cal re-established its credibility as a Top 20 team by holding off a furious Saint Mary’s second-half comeback.

Down by 11 at the half, 37-26, the Gaels roared back behind three three-pointers from Evan Fitzner in the first five minutes of the second half. A steal by Joe Rahon led to a three-pointer by Emmett Naar that put the Gaels ahead 45-44 with 11:48 left.  The Gaels nursed that lead for the next five minutes, eventually extending it to five points, 49-44, on a drive into the lane by Fitzner.

The lead see-sawed for the next several minutes until Dane Pineau, playing the game of his life — 10 points, 15 rebounds — soared above Rabb’s outstretched hands to sink a baby hook and put the Gaels up again, 57-56, with 2:22 left. Cal responded with a bucket to go up one, then the game settled into the hands of the Gaels’ supreme point guard, Joe Rahon.

Rahon dominated the ball and the game almost to the end. Coming off a high-ball screen that proved extremely effective for the Gaels in the second half, he juked Rabb on a layup that put the Gaels up 59-58 at the 1:37 mark. After a Cal miss, Rahon again brought the ball up-court, slowly, as if he had all the time in the world, looking for that high-ball screen. He settled for a jumper this time, missed it, but Pineau pulled down a crucial rebound that kept the ball in the Gaels’ possession as the clock ticked down to under 40 seconds.

Walton takes notice

It seemed at that moment as if the Gaels were destined to win. Rahon’s dominance moved Pac-12 Network commentator Bill Walton — who, in his ADHD-like rambling throughout the afternoon had alternated between discussing the game and subjects such as Hawaiian literature and Australian wildlife — to notice that something special was happening on the court.

“Every aspect of Joe Rahon’s game has been superb,” the former UCLA and NBA great noted.

Rahon assumed his position at the top of the key, dribbling, dribbling, looking for another opportunity to exploit Rabb. He made his move, but this  time Rabb  foiled him with a block — and perhaps a foul. Game photos revealed that Rabb not only hit Rahon’s shooting hand, but also ruffled the net. The possibility of awarding Saint Mary’s a basket on a basket-interference call and a foul shot to boot hung in the air for a millisecond. But the refs, who had called a Rabb foul on a Rahon drive at the 8:31 mark, would not bail out the Gaels this time.

Still the score remained 59-58 in the Gaels’ favor as Cal regrouped for a last attempt with 22.6 seconds left. Logic would dictate an effort to find Rabb on the low block, but Cal had other ideas. Point guard and team leader Tyrone Wallace, whom the Gaels had contained fairly well (seven points on 2-12 shooting), made a feint into the paint and the Gaels’ Kyle Clark, guarding Bird on the wing, fell for it, leaving Bird for a second to help out on Wallace. Wallace fired a pass out to Bird and he drained a three with Clark desperately trying to close out on him.

There were still 15.2 seconds left, and again Rahon came up court, looking to challenge Rabb in the paint one more time. The gods turned against Rahon at that point, however, as he was stripped of the ball, precipitating a wild scramble. The Gaels seemed to get a reprieve, however, as Rahon was fouled by Wallace with 1.7 seconds left.

Gael fans, emotionally drained only seconds earlier by Bird’s dagger, saw a promising outcome: Rahon would sink both ends of a one-and-one, sending the game into overtime. But Rahon, for all his brilliance, was not sharp in his free-throw shooting Saturday, making only one of three. He clanked the first attempt, Cal rebounded and only two more Cal foul shots in the waning tenths of a second were left of the story.


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