When the third seed and 24th ranked California raced out to an early 14-5 lead over sixth seed Oregon State, and especially once the Bears extended that to a 17-5 advantage, most folks watching the 4th and final quarterfinal contest of the Pac-12 Tournament generally, and not necessarily unreasonably, assumed the Beavers had run out of gas, luck, and pretty much everything, and it was going to be a blowout. Given that it was already very late at night, most probably called it good and went to sleep.
That proved a premature, not to mention incorrect, conclusion to come to, and Oregon State answered with a 14-4 run to get right back into it, pulling within 21-19 on Langston Morris-Walker's 3 pointer with still over 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
And it was just the beginning of what would turn out to be one of the better game of the tournament or the Pac-12 season, as well as what would quickly turn into a career (so far) night by Oregon State freshman Derrick Bruce, who until lately, was one of the more overlooked members of the quintet of newcomers Coach Wayne Tinkle brought aboard this year.
The Beavers got within 1 point on a 3 pointer by Bruce, and then back within 2 on another Bruce jumper to answer Jaylen Brown's 3.
Cal would carry a 4 point, 34-30 advantage into halftime, but it was already apparent the game was on, and would remain so long into the night.
Even though Gary Payton II was off to another slow start. Not that that wasn't about to change as well.
Of course, Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird still had plenty to say about who would advance to take on Utah tomorrow night (actually now later tonight).
The Beavers would spend most of the second half hanging within one or two possessions of the Bears, and that again probably prompted a lot of what few fans were left in the middle of the night to assume that Oregon State wouldn't quite get over the hump, especially after Rabb answered another Bruce 3 pointer with free throws, and Tyrone Wallace answered GP IIs layup that made it a 1 point game with 12 minutes to go with a basket on the other end.
That too would eventually prove an incorrect assumption.
"We knew it would be a tough game, just like the previous two," California Coach Cuonzo Martin said. "They make you take tough shots, they put pressure on, and they're physical without fouling. And they have one of the best guards in all of college basketball."
It looked like the Beavers might have seized momentum on Bruce's game tieing 3, but Bird matched it at the 9 minute mark.
Finally, as the game wound down under the 7 minute mark, the Beavers took a 55-54 lead when GP II drained a 3 pointer off of a great assist by Bruce. Only to have Bird bury a 3 of his own as soon as the Bears could get back down to the other end of the MGM Grand floor.
Stephen Thompson Jr.'s 2 + 1 swung the score back in the Beavers' favor, and Payton then pushed Oregon State to their largest lead of the game, going up 60-57 on a pair of free throws.
But GP II would then mis-fire on the 3 that would have opened a multiple-possession advantage, and Bird buried another 3 with 5 minutes left.
"Oregon State, they're a tough team," Bird said. "They're scrappy, and they always fight back. So once you get a lead, you can't get comfortable with them, because they always find a way to get back in the games."
Payton put Oregon State ahead one last time, but then he leaped out late at Brown on a 3 point attempt from right in front of the Bear's bench, and Brown proceeded to sink all 3 free throws to take a 63-62 lead with 4 1/2 minutes to go, and the Bears would lead the rest of the way, eventually pulling away to the 76-68 win.
"We battled our tails off," Oregon State Coach Wayne Tinkle felt. "I'm proud of our effort. We were facing a lot of adversity, and we were still in it late."
With Tres Tinkle still out indefinitely with a right foot injury suffered last week, Bruce picked up the slack with a brilliant game for the Beavers, finishing with a game high 25 points, driven by 7 of 11 shooting, which included making 4 of 6 3 pointers.
Payton, above, USA Today photo, put a scare into Bear fans in the second half, following up a 2 point, 4 rebound first half by adding 18 points and 13 rebounds after the break.
Thompson had another good effort starting in place of Tinkle, who was Oregon State's second leading scorer behind Payton prior to being injured, finishing with a dozen points.
"Gary played his heart out, and Derrick and Stevie really competed," W. Tinkle said. "We didn't throw in the towel, but this will sting for a while, because we could have had it. We will see time and time again when we look at the video that we didn't do things we were supposed to, and they made us pay."
And the Bears had plenty of stat sheet stuffing performances as well.
Rabb posted team highs in his double double with 21 points, by making 9 of 11 shots, and 15 rebounds, and Bird also buried 7 of 11 shots, and went Bruce one better, burying 5 of 7 from 3 point range.
Jordan Matthews, above, USA Today photo, added 17 points off the Bear bench, and though Wallace was held to only 6 points, a product of missing 8 of the 9 shots he took, he still contributed a game high 10 assists.
And in a key stat, Cal out-rebounded Oregon State by 1. Key in that the Beavers haven't lost any game they didn't lose the battle of the boards in.
It mattered in a contest where every possession carried outcome impacting importance.
California climbed to 23-9, and possibly climbed a seeding line, with the win, especially if they can follow tonight's game up with a similarly strong effort against Utah.
Oregon State wound up 19-12, and while all losses hurt, the competitive nature of this contest and the quality of the opponent, one the Beavers split with in the regular season, shouldn't hurt much. Selection Sunday will tell us when and where the Beavers will play next, but the consensus seems to be that Oregon State will still not only make the NCAA Tournament, there's a decent chance they will even avoid the play-in games.
Notably, after 8 games in Las Vegas, chalk is 8-0, with every higher seeded team winning. The Pac-12 was deep and competitive, but also appears to have sorted itself out in the regular season.