Cal nearly produced its second-best win of the season on Wednesday.
Granted, it was not the NCAA Tournament, only the NIT. And it probably would not have matched Cal's Feb. 1 victory over Arizona, which was 21-0 and ranked No. 1 at the time. And ultimately, the Bears' 67-65 loss to Southern Methodist in Dallas merely meant another defeat and an end to a rather disappointing 21-14 season that began with such promise.
But the Bears came within a whisker of winning the game, and it would have been a big-time victory given the venue. The fact that the Bears were playing without Richard Solomon, who was out with a concussion, would have made it that much more impressive.
SMU should have been in the NCAA Tournament, but for some reason the selection committee focused only on their non-conference strength of schedule and punished the Mustangs for playing patsies before beginning American Athletic Conference play. But that's another issue.
What could not be ignored was that SMU was nearly unbeatable at home at Moody Coliseum. The Mustangs were slightly better than average away from home, but at Moody they were an NCAA-championship-caliber team. Larry Brown's squad lost only one home game this season, beating Connecticut by nine, Memphis by 15 and Cincinnati by 21. Their only home loss came against Louisville, which rallied from a 14-point, first-half deficit to knock off SMU. With SMU having that kind of success at home, you might even argue that beating SMU at Moody would be a bigger accomplishment for Cal than knocking off Arizona in Berkeley.
In any case, Cal was right there, in position to steal Wednesday's NIT quarterfinal in Dallas. The Bears trailed by seven early in the second half, a situation that typically spells doom for visitors at loud Moody. However, senior guard Juston Cobbs continued to be the clutch player he has been all season and freshman Jabari Byrd turned into the star the Bears had hoped he would be when the season began.
Byrd took several difficult, long-range shots he had no business attempting, but he made most of them while on his way to a team-high 20 points, his highest total since scoring 24 in the third game of the season against Oakland (Mich.). Wednesday's performance, coming on top of his 19-point game two nights earlier in the victory over Arkansas, suggested Byrd may yet be the star many expected. He helped the Bears take a three-point lead with less than three minutes left.
After SMU took a two-point lead with 38 seconds left, Cobbs made a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 15.4 seconds remaining to put Cal ahead by a point. That could have been the game-winner, but SMU's Nic Moore pushed SMU back in front by two with a 3-pointer from the right corner with 6.5 seconds left.
Cal coach Mike Montgomery opted not to call a timeout, and Cobbs rushed the ball upcourt. He got a pretty look on a 23-foot shot that was close, but it bounced off the front rim as the buzzer sounded.
Cobbs finished with 18, and if his final shot had gone in, the Bears would be off to Madison Square Garden to play in the NIT semifinals.
Instead, they return to Berkeley, their season over. The two wins in the NIT and the near-miss against SMU do not erase the disappointing finish to the regular season that knocked Cal out of contention for an NCAA Tournament berth. But they did show what the Bears are capable of.