LOS ANGELES –- The disparity in talent was apparent each time the teams huddled on the court. On one end, Cal was lead by a quartet of seniors who had combined to score 5,536 points during their careers and collectively averaged 60.1 points per game this season.
On the other end, UCLA was led by a senior who had scored 981 points during his career and was thrust into a leadership role this season as one NBA draft pick after another left Westwood early following the school’s three straight trips to the Final Four.
As the clock ticked down on Cal’s 85-72 win over UCLA in the semifinal of the Pac-10 tournament, Michael Roll put his hands over his head and looked up at the Staples Center ceiling and exhaled. This wasn’t the way Roll was supposed to end his collegiate career. Not after the way it began with three straight trips to the Final Four and 30-plus win seasons. But that’s what happens when you are a solid role player forced to become a leader on a storied program now full of role players and no real stars.
Roll finished his career scoring a career-high 27 points while the only other active senior for UCLA, Nikola Dragovic, scored eight points and hit just 1 of 8 shots from 3-point range. Senior forward James Keefe, who was averaging 2.2 points, had season ending surgery on his left shoulder last month.
While the Bruins lacked playmaking seniors all year, Cal has been brimming with them this season.
Jerome Randle, who was named the Pac-10 Player of the Year, surpassed Sean Lampley on Friday as the all-time leading scorer in Cal history after scoring 24 points. Patrick Christopher leaped over Kevin Johnson and Joe Shipp into fourth place on the school's all-time scoring list after scoring 16 points. Theo Robertson, who is the school’s all-time leader in 3-point shooting percentage, added 20 points, including three from beyond the arc, and Jamal Boykin, who was named all-conference second team this season, rounded out the Cal seniors by scoring 10 points.
Cal’s four seniors scored 70 of the Bears’ 85 points against UCLA and sparked the team’s comeback in the second half.
“When you look at their seniors, they have scored 5,600 points combined between the four guys, I think the next closest in the Pac-10 is about 2,500 points for graduating seniors,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland. “Those guys are special.”
Howland understands he too could have had a special group if he was able to keep his players from leaving school early. In a perfect college basketball world, where players stay until they graduate, Roll would have been the fourth option in a starting lineup that would’ve featured Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday.
“It’s always tough when you lose players early,” Howland said. “But that is the current climate in college basketball and that won’t change in the foreseeable future.”
Cal’s senior leadership was evident early in the second half when Robertson scored seven straight points, including a 3-pointer to give Cal its first lead of the game. The Bears shut down UCLA defensively and hit nearly every open shot, shooting a staggering 70.8 percent from the field in the second half and outscoring UCLA 50-33.
“We adjusted on Roll, who is hard to guard,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “Roll ended up with 27 but he had 16 at the half and for the first 10-12 minutes he didn’t score which I think was the key for us to be able to get back in it. It really helped that we did a job on the key guy who was Roll.”
As Roll’s career came to a close, he sat on the bench and put his head down, raising it from time-to-time to acknowledge the fans chanting his name and giving him a standing ovation. On the other end of the court Montgomery was also giving the senior a standing ovation. The Cal coach went up to Roll after the game to tell him how much he respected him as a player and how well he played during his career.
Meanwhile the college careers of Montgomery’s seniors continued as they shattered any notion that a Pac-10 tournament championship wouldn’t mean anything to the regular-season champs.
“This group is really close, having played together for the last four years and having been through a lot of games,” Robertson said. “We want to win this tournament. There wouldn’t be a better feeling than winning tomorrow. We understand in the postseason its win or go home so that’s in the back of our minds. We really enjoy playing with each other and we’re not ready for it to end.”