BERKELEY, Calif. - The environment unalterably changed 17 minutes before tipoff Thursday when Cal's Straw Hat Band marched into acoustics-challenged Haas Pavilion and made a racket that raged for more than two hours.
There were five drummers, four guys carrying tubas, six flutists, 37 Bears blaring their horns and one cymbalist. Arizona was going to be badly outnumbered.
It was like the glory days at McKale Center when, on cue, the pep band would deliver so much energy to the arena that the Other Team never had a chance, and everybody knew it.
Cal had won 17 straight at Haas and has the maturity and leadership of the Pac-12's two most valuable seniors, meddlesome guard Jorge Gutierrez and determined power forward Harper Kamp. As quickly as the Bears took a 22-9 lead, Cal's student section began to chant "Hip, Hip, Jorge! Hip, Hip Jorge!"
It looked to be that kind of night for the depth- and size-challenged Wildcats, who haven't been more vulnerable since, when, 1984?
This was going to be a victory concert at Haas, loud music annoying the once-proud visitors all night, as the Bears continued to position themselves for a second league championship in three years.
Well, it was noisy, all right. At halftime, the crowd booed the officials so loudly and with such fervor that you almost couldn't hear the band. Arizona led 45-34, a stunning turn of events that so disturbed Cal coaches Mike Montgomery and Jay John that they left the court shouting at one another, face to face.
Perhaps they were both saying the same thing: "What happened?"
Here's what happened: Arizona won 78-74 on a night it was down to a handful of healthy players in the last five minutes, when Solomon Hill fouled out, when Angelo Chol played his best game as a collegian, when Nick Johnson and Kyle Fogg blocked shots in the improbable, crazy, final minute, and when the UA's season that seemed to be lost, was found.
"No one's dead," said UA coach Sean Miller. "We can still breathe."
Incredibly, Arizona missed 14 of 29 free throws, and Cal made 15 of its 16. And the Wildcats still won.
"It was as crazy as the triple-overtime game here last year," said Fogg, who, according to Miller, had his best game as a Wildcat, scoring 23 points and playing effective defense on star Bears guard Allen Crabbe.
"A lot of people wouldn't have liked our chances, especially when we got down so bad at the beginning. But we've worked too hard to just disappear. We showed a lot of guts."
The Wildcats won because they were tougher than the Bears, more physical, and because they didn't give in to the crowd or the Bears' comeback.
"They really executed well," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. "We should have been able to hang in there, but we were 1 for 8 from three-point range, and they were 7 for 11. That's critical. I don't think we were the aggressor and that's concerning."
Tension was so great at the start of the second half that two blue-uniformed policemen stationed themselves in front of the Cal student section. Just to make sure nobody got carried away, right? First place in Pac-12 hoops can be serious business.
Such was the setting when the Bears made their inevitable comeback, finally tying the game at 72, responding to the rowdy crowd and wearing down Arizona's thin roster - Jordin Mayes (foot) is the latest to be injured - with Kamp, Gutierrez and adrenaline if nothing else.
Say this for Gutierrez, he's a riot. He almost started one with 4:46 remaining, barreling into the UA bench while attempting to corral a loose ball, landing smack on top of UA assistant coach Joe Pasternack.
"In (Gutierrez's) opinion, one of the coaches on the other team did something he shouldn't," Montgomery said.
For a few tense minutes, it appeared as though the Wildcats might be involved in an ejection for the fourth consecutive Thursday. Instead, at the most unlikely time, they rallied and held the Bears to four points in the final 4:46, breaking free from a maddening series of last-minute Pac-12 losses to Oregon, Colorado and Washington.
"It was really physical," said Kamp, who followed his career-high 33 against Arizona at Haas last season, with 22 on Thursday. "They were letting us play a lot. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. You can't complain about the way things are going. You just have to play through it and find a way to make plays."
Kamp wasn't talking about Chol, the UA freshman, but Chol was a factor everywhere in 16 minutes. It was the most Chol has played since he got 19 minutes against San Diego State, and he scored his career high, eight points.
"It was inspiring to watch him play," Miller said of his freshman center, who blocked two shots.
Never one to give an inch, the fiery Miller insisted that the Wildcats didn't play any better at the finish Thursday night than they did in those losses to Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
"We're 15-8 and we're probably four or five plays away from being in a different situation, maybe going for the Pac-12 championship," he said. "If you just stay with it, sometimes it will come back around, and tonight it did."
Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or email@example.com