BERKELEY -- The opportunity was too good. The door was wide open.
With 11 seconds left, the California men's basketball team was in prime position to upset No. 21 UNLV. Following two Justin Cobbs free throws, the Bears were up by one, in the midst of a solid defensive performance, in front of a rowdy home crowd. They were just one defensive stand away from beating the Running Rebels, and adding a marquee win to their resume -- one that would create momentum heading into conference play, and one that would help Cal stand out on that second Sunday in March.
The Bears played solid defense on that last possession. Team defense forced guard Anthony Marshall to take a wild, off-balance shot with four seconds remaining. The ball sailed well short of the rim. The game should have been over. One rebound, and Cal would prevail.
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But the Bears could not secure the rebound. Instead, forward Quintrell Thomas outmuscled Cal's defenders and -- being the only Rebel in the vicinity of the missed shot -- grabbed the rebound. Thomas then quickly put the ball off of the glass and in, while being fouled. That and-one came with just over one second left, and essentially wiped away the Bears' golden opportunity, as they fell 76-75 on Sunday at Haas Pavilion.
In Cal's narrow defeat, though, that offensive rebound was not an unusual sight. In fact, the Rebels (7-1) made a living of getting any missed shot, particularly on the offensive end. Thomas's last offensive rebound was one of 13 for UNLV. Those 13 offensive boards resulted in nine second-chance points for the Rebels, including those two crucial points at the end.
"I should have got that rebound," said Bears forward Richard Solomon, who tied a career high with 14 points. "I was boxing out, and I just didn't get that rebound.
"When you've got two 6-10 dudes [...] three 6-10 bigs, I feel like you should be a good rebounding team. I think it's a mindset, we're just a team, where everybody including the guards need to box out. It shouldn't just be on the bigs."
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Offensive rebounding was not the only facet of the game that sunk Cal (6-2). The Bears free throw shooting left a lot to be desired. Coming into Sunday's matchup, Cal was shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe on the season. But against UNLV, the Bears could not find their groove consistently, resulting in a 15-for-28 effort from the line.
Prior to Cobbs' two successful freebies, junior Cal swing man Allen Crabbe had his opportunity. In a tie game with 39 seconds left, Crabbe was sent to the foul line on a questionable call. Unfortunately for Crabbe, he only converted 1-of-2 free throws, providing the window that the Rebels needed to escape Haas with the victory. Crabbe finished the game with a team-high 18 points, as four Bears finished in double figures, including Solomon, Cobbs (11), Crabbe and true freshman Tyrone Wallace, who hit 5-of-8 from the field and 3-of-5 from the line.
"Free throws killed us," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "I think we were at one point 4-for-15 from the line. We just missed free throws when you can't afford it in a game like that ... We had our chances."
The missed free throw and the inability to pull down rebounds plagued the Bears for much of Sunday afternoon. For all you can highlight in a 40-minute basketball game with two teams separated by 1 point, Cal just needed to convert just two more free throws or grab one more defensive board, and the outcome would have swung differently.
But alas, the records will show that the Bears lost to a good UNLV team at home, and the tournament committee figures to highlight that in favor of the Rebels, particularly because they were without star Mike Moser for the entire second half and much of the first, after the junior 6-foot-8 forward dislocated his elbow early in the game.
But even though the Bears missed their opportunity to get that highlighted win, there are still 22 games in the 2012-13 season -- most notably, a home date with No. 15 Creighton on Saturday: A winnable game against a respected opponent, provided that the Bears make their free throws and secure their rebounds.
Just like that, while one door closes, another door opens.