Sean Miller struck a pose. He never does that.
He stood on the oversized A at midcourt, raised his arms toward the rafters, and looked straight into the eyes of the overjoyed crowd.
He pumped his arms again. The noise was overwhelming.
“The finish tonight was one of the great finishes I’ve ever been part of,” he said. “Karma has a funny way of coming back around.”
Arizona beat Cal 64-61 in a game it didn’t seem possible the Wildcats would win.
Karma? A few weeks ago at Haas Pavilion, Gabe York missed a shot at the buzzer that would have beaten the Bears. He fell to the ground and was engulfed by a mob of court-storming Bears.
Cal coach Cuonzo Martin practically flew to the Bears’ joyous locker room that night and did a 30-second happy dance. “It’s probably on YouTube by now,” he said.
On Thursday night, Martin neither danced nor crowed the way he did in Berkeley.
“It lingers, we let it slip,” he said outside the Bears locker room. “But we don’t have time to sulk about it.”
After 38 minutes of tension, much of it leading to an inelegantly played game, Arizona seemed to be going down the basketball highway on nothing but fumes. By the time the Bears took a 61-53 lead with 1 minute 52 seconds remaining, it became clear that Cal has as much talent as any team in the Pac-12, maybe more.
“They’re outstanding,” said Miller. “They have all the parts of a championship team.”
That’s when Karma, in capital letters, was introduced to 14,664 cover-your-eyes, dreading-the-worst fans at McKale.
York had missed potential game-winners on the road against Colorado, Utah, USC and, of course, at Cal. It didn’t seem fair. Didn’t the basketball gods owe him one? Can the anguish pile up on one college ballplayer more than it had piled up on Gabe York?
In the final 1:52 — in the final 20 minutes, for that matter — York was the college basketball version of Steph Curry. Step-back 3-pointers. Floaters in the lane. He scored all 19 of his points in the second half, when nothing else — not 16, not 17, not 18 — would have been enough for Arizona to avoid the year’s most painful loss.
It took all 19.
It was the game of Gabe York’s life, and his coach said he had “never been more happy for a kid than I am now for Gabe.”
In a timeout with 29 seconds remaining, his team leading 61-59, Martin got straight to the point. “We figured York would get the ball,” he said. “We felt like he’d come off a screen, either way. We just did a poor job of chasing him off the screen.”
It wasn’t just a screen. It was a series of screens in a tangle of bodies under the UA basket that would have clogged Interstate 10. York got free. The pressure was overwhelming.
“They ran a triple screen for him,” said Cal guard Tyrone Wallace. “He made a tough shot.”
The York that returned from Arizona’s halftime locker room was not the same York that was held scoreless in the first half. Martin noticed it right away.
“He got his head up,” said the Cal coach.
Until York got his head up, until he slipped out of traffic for a step-back game-winner, the player of the game was Cal freshman center Ivan Rabb. He was terrific. No wonder he is considered a lottery pick in June’s draft.
Rabb had not attempted a 3-point basket since his high school days, but with 3:22 remaining, he swished a 3-pointer to give the Bears a 54-50 lead. He played so well that it didn’t seem to matter that his fellow future lottery pick, Cal freshman guard Jaylen Brown, was not a factor.
Brown fouled out in 15 minutes. He scored just five points. For the last month, Jaylen Brown has probably been the Pac-12’s most feared player. On Thursday, Rabb took that role until York became the Man of the Hour in the final two minutes.
Anything less wouldn’t have been enough for Arizona.
The Bears and the Wildcats might meet again next week at the Pac-12 tournament. How would that be for a rubber match? But between now and then, there’s Utah and Oregon and probably Colorado to think about, as well as Stanford on Senior Day on Saturday afternoon.
It’s unclear whether beating the Bears will provide Arizona with any true momentum. Thursday’s game was often played so sloppily that it could have been Stetson vs. South Carolina Upstate in the Atlantic Sun Conference.
It wasn’t ballet. It was 40 minutes of loose balls, lost balls, holding, tripping and even bleeding (UA forward Ryan Anderson had a small cut that had to be patched during the scrum).
It looked like both teams were running the wishbone offense.
Perhaps Cal lost because it had not played in a Pac-12 road atmosphere like the one at McKale, where all 40 minutes count. The Bears failed to play in a sold-out game at Utah, Colorado, Oregon or Washington, with a bit more than 13,000 empty seats at those games.
Finishing on the road is the last lesson a team new to the Top 25 learns.
“It would’ve meant a lot to beat them here,” said Rabb. “But the season’s not over yet.”
In fact, it’s just getting started. Isn’t it fun?