BERKELEY, Calif. -- Somewhere in that sea of yellow, he was stuck. Justin Cobbs couldn’t breathe. The curse of victory for a young man who wasn’t wild about being swallowed by a crowd after Cal’s 60-58 upset win over No. 1 Arizona on Saturday.
But that’s what happens when the undefeated No. 1 squad in the country falls for the first time on the opponent's home floor. That’s what happens when a three-game losing streak is ended that way. And that’s what happens when a senior point guard hits a game winner with 0.9 seconds to go, a development so stunning that Bears fans rushed the court early.
Fearing a technical foul that might ruin the moment, team and school officials eventually cleared the floor after Cobbs hit a jump shot from the left corner over 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski.
“I just stepped back and was able to shoot a shot I could make,” said Cobbs, who finished with 19 points and seven assists. “Step back and shot it with confidence and it went in.”
Haas Pavilion, which hosted Cal’s first win over a No. 1 team at the on-campus facility, exploded. Saturday night’s festivities had already started on the hardwood.
There were the fraternity brothers dishing out hugs whether they were wanted or not. There were the cheerleaders maintaining their perfect kicks and pom-pom pumps in the midst of the frenzy. There were the young men fixing their hair and posing for selfies. There were the young women nearby who thought they were fools.
There was the elderly fan who told Cobbs, “We’ll never forget this.”
There was the 20-something fan who speechless, yet screaming to a friend she’d put on speakerphone. “Like I don’t even know what to say!”
Cobbs survived the madness. But it had reached his phone by the time he’d returned to the locker room. There were 135 text messages awaiting him just 30 minutes after the win. “I got 89 [Twitter] mentions,” he said.
Cobbs was smiling.
Four years ago, he couldn’t find many reasons to smile.
The Los Angeles native left the West Coast to begin his collegiate career at Minnesota during the 2009-10 season. But he didn’t thrive in former Gophers coach Tubby Smith’s system. And he missed home.
It was bigger than that, though. He wasn’t even sure he still wanted to play.
At Cal, however, Cobbs got his groove back following a transfer in 2010. He’s been one of the top guards in the Pac-12 throughout his career. And he’s a leader who is respected by his teammates and coaches.
In the final seconds Saturday, Cobbs dribbled up the floor. Mike Montgomery had decided to let his team play for the win instead of calling a timeout and attempting to set up something.
Cobbs had run pick-and-pop plays with David Kravish (14 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 blocks) all night.
Arizona had lost Brandon Ashley early in the game to a foot injury that could end his season. There was a noticeable difference in the Wildcats’ interior defense without him.
Cal exploited that.
“Anytime you lose a starter to an injury during a game, it takes a lot of resolve on your group and team to fight,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said.
By the time Cobbs had a shot at the game winner, Arizona had already been conditioned to monitor Kravish in space because he’d hit so many jump shots. That potential threat, one that Cal had built up throughout the evening, possibly made Tarczewski react too slowly when Richard Solomon came up to set the screen and give Cobbs some extra time to take the shot.
The Bears entered Saturday’s game on a three-game losing streak. Cobbs had a similar late-game opportunity during an overtime loss to Arizona State on Wednesday. But he missed.
Cobbs’ teammates, however, never doubted him. So as he dribbled up the floor against the No. 1 team in the country, they expected him to make it.
“I already knew,” said Solomon, who had 12 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and three steals. “The whole team has faith in Justin to knock that shot down. I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him. We gonna celebrate tonight.”
It was just one basket. It doesn’t change everything for Cal.
It does, however, validate so much for Cobbs.
The decision to return home. The toughness to stick with the game even when he was unsure about his future. The courage to take another possible game winner even though the last one didn’t fall.
“[That shot] does a lot of things, because after my freshman year I was questioning a lot of things,” Cobbs said. “Whether this sport was for me, whether I was good enough to play at this level. I’m just blessed. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to come to another program and have another opportunity where I can get on the floor and show what I can do. It’s tremendous for me. I’m just going to embrace it and keep getting better.”