The guy with his knees in my back, Row 1, Section 17, took a seat moments before tipoff Saturday night, pointed to the court and told his guest, “Those guys are No. 1 out of 300 teams, the best team in college basketball.”
His guest, deadpan, said: “Which team?”
College basketball news sometimes travels slowly to parts of Haas Pavilion, but on Saturday night it was difficult to tell who was No. 1 and who had lost to UC-Santa Barbara, USC and Arizona State.
For a while, Cal’s undistinguished big men, Richard Solomon and David Kravish, came off as Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, dominating the glass, the paint and Pete Newell Court with the subtlety of a balled fist.
They combined for 20 points so quickly that Sean Miller put Matt Korcheck and Elliott Pitts into the game. No, it wasn’t garbage time, but it was a hint that for the first time this season the Wildcats were desperate.
Except for the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, it happens to the best of teams.
At a time Arizona needed to man-up in the Bears’ madhouse, it was a man down. Brandon Ashley injured his left foot before he could work up a sweat.
No one said that playing on the Pac-12 road was going to be a night at the prom. Those 11,877 in the crowd weren’t well-wishers.
Cal played fearlessly, as it had two months ago when it played Syracuse to the buzzer, losing 92-81 in Hawaii in a game that was tied at halftime. Did you expect anything less?
The Bears won 60-58 because Arizona’s final three possessions resulted in a turnover by Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a shot that was stuffed back into Kaleb Tarczewski‘s face and an errant pull-up that Nick Johnson makes 99 percent of the time.
It lost because Johnson shot 1 for 14 from the field, a full-out nightmare, but that’s basketball. Without him, Arizona is probably 15-7.
Even at that, Cal played the final 12 minutes as though it had no idea of how to beat Arizona, but in the end all it took was Justin Cobbs sticking the jumper of a lifetime.
The crowd rushed the court twice. It stuck around for another 15 minutes. They did everything but cut down the nets.
That’s what it means to take down No. 1.
Mike Montgomery, in Act II of his Pac-12 career, had beaten Arizona 18 times, many of them instant classics and none more so than Saturday’s epic. The only coach in history who has more victories over UA is former Sun Devil coach Ned Wulk, with 36. Many of those were before Arizona started taking basketball seriously.
“It was pretty exciting, I mean as long as I’ve been doing this, No. 1 always brings out everybody,” said Montgomery. “At the introductions I looked up and said, ‘This is kinda how it’s supposed to be.’ ”
Saturday’s game couldn’t have been more serious. The Wildcats had already spent a month surviving every ounce of oxygen Utah, ASU, Stanford and UCLA could summon, surviving unscathed.
Cal was wired. It swarmed Johnson while Montgomery’s game plan, attacking the 7-foot Tarczewski inside, was helped considerably with Ashley sitting out the game’s final 38 minutes.
Montgomery turns 67 this month. He has survived bladder cancer and a classic, 19-year rivalry against Lute Olson, and beating the Wildcats has been his specialty. He knocked them out of the Pac-12 regular-season championship, winning in Tucson a year ago, and on Saturday he knocked them from the nation’s No. 1 turf.
You could see it coming out the door and all the way to Haight-Ashbury.
Before Friday’s practice, Miller was asked if he could picture himself coaching as long as Montgomery, at least another 20 years.
“No way, no way,” he answered. “It’s just a different day and age.
“(Montgomery is) no question one of the best coaches I’ve gone against, and I think he’s nationally respected as much as any coach doing it today,” he said. “Some coaches lean more to offense and others to defense. But he’s got a really good balance. He does it at both ends.”
That was an apt description of Saturday’s game. Cal won the shooting battle, 44.6 percent to Arizona’s shaky 32.3. That’s it. Look no further.
It’s not a dodge to buy into the theory that losing a game can be a good thing. Not if you’re 21-1 and Ashley, who averages 12 points and is shooting 52 percent, didn’t have a chance to impact the 22nd game.
You are no longer choked by expectations. You can breathe deeply and prepare for a more important chore: winning the Pac-12 and getting Ashley healthy before March.
Besides, Cal hadn’t beaten a No. 1 team since 1994, and had but two such wins in 54 seasons. It was due.
In the din of the game’s final 10 minutes, I watched as Olson sat casually, two rows behind the Arizona bench. For 25 years, a game like that would eat away at him. He couldn’t let them go. On Saturday, he put on his jacket and walked into the night.
Now it’s Miller who knows what it’s like to carry the burden.
The public address announcer shouted “ladies and gentlemen, you’ve witnessed history at Haas Pavilion as Arizona falls to 21-1.”
I don’t think the Wildcats fell as much as the Bears climbed, at least for one night, to the top of the hill.