Well, it’s good to hear that Braun landed on his feet, quickly getting snapped up by Rice. I’m sure he’ll do just fine there. And while the beginning of the Mike Montgomery Era at Cal obviously pushed the rest of this list back a few days, I think it’s high time we closed the book on the Braun Era. So, I now present the Nos. 1-6 of the Top 12 Moments of the Ben Braun Era at Cal.
Nos. 7-12 can be found here.
6. Amit Tamir and the Bears defeat No. 13 Oregon in double-OT (2002)
Amit Tamir had the game of his life that night, pouring in 39 points, including 5 of 6 from behind the arc, in a 107-103 double-overtime barnburner upset of Oregon, definitely the single most exciting Cal basketball game I have ever attended. These Ducks were legit, as Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson would eventually take them to the Elite Eight, but on that night, Cal would not be denied. Though they trailed by 19 points at one point, the Bears would battle back, eventually taking control in the second overtime. Haas was rocking that night like I have never seen it before or since. A couple of postgame quotes:
Ernie Kent - "This is an unbelievable environment here in Berkeley. Cal has a tremendous home court advantage."
Ben Braun - "I wish we could pack up all 12,000 of our fans and bring them along to Washington. Cal fans are the best fans in the world."
It was pretty awesome. One of the most disappointing aspects of Cal basketball over the past few year has been the lack of fan support. I don’t blame the fans (the on-court product was often not worth supporting), and judging by the crowd at this year’s Cal-Stanford women’s game it’s clear Cal fans will vociferously support a winner, but it was disappointing nonetheless. One can only hope that with Mike Montgomery at the helm, we’ll once again see these types of crowds make Haas Pavilion one of the toughest places to play in college basketball.
5. Braun turns down overtures from Michigan to sign an eight-year extension with Cal (1997)
I know, I know, we just fired the guy, but at the time, Braun was our savior. He had just led a scandal-ridden team to the Sweet 16, only to find out over the summer that Cal would be sanctioned with three year’s probation. Compounding that was the fact that Cal was feeling vulnerable at the time, having been burned by Steve Mariucci less than a year prior. Had Braun elected to take the Michigan job, one that must have been incredibly attractive to him, Cal basketball might have gone completely to pieces, with players transferring rather than deal with probation. Instead, Braun made his stand at Berkeley, declaring that Cal was a place that could be viewed as a ‘destination’ job and not just a stepping stone, and for this, Cal fans should be grateful.
(I was going to write ‘eternally grateful’ in that last sentence, but of course, Cal fans aren’t eternally grateful. No fanbase anywhere is. 10 years grateful, sure, but eternity is a long time, and a lot of things can happen. Like losing. Lots and lots of losing.)
4. Richard Midgley nails a 3 to beat NC State in overtime (2003)
The single most exciting first-round game of the 2003 NCAA tournament belonged to Cal and North Carolina State. A tight contest throughout, Cal still managed to hold a lead through pretty much the entire game; NC State grabbed their first lead with only 2 minutes left in the game. Cal was able to tie it up on a Conor Famulener free throw, but Midgley couldn’t close the deal in regulation, his layup blocked by Wolfpack defenders.
Things didn’t get easier in overtime. The back and forth continued, but Cal fans thought they were finished when NC State hit a 3 to take a one-point lead with just 12 seconds left. Still, the team didn’t panic as the final seconds ticked away. Joe Shipp drove towards the basket, but found nothing, and so he kicked it out to Midgley. Sir Richard, the freshman from England, calmly drained a 3 with less that 4 seconds to go, lifting Cal’s fortunes as suddenly as they were dashed only seconds before. After the Wolfpack’s desperation shot at the buzzer failed to go, Cal players mobbed Midgley on the court, celebrating the hero of their thrilling, last-second victory.
Celebrations like this are what college basketball is all about.
3. Leon Powe powers the Bears past Oregon in 2OT and into the Pac-10 final (2006)
There are a few running themes throughout the games on this list: dominant performances, single-elimination tournaments, overtime thrillers. This game had all of that and some to spare. Another double-OT victory over Oregon makes the list, but this time it occurred under the pressure of the ‘win-or-go-home’ format of the Pac-10 tournament, and it featured the most dominant performance by a Cal player (Leon Powe) that I’ve seen in a long, long time.
Already demanding notice after setting a tournament record with 20 rebounds in a victory over USC the previous night, Leon Powe had what is probably his signature game at Cal during the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament. Seventh-seeded Oregon was fighting for its season; with a 15-17 record, the Ducks knew there would be no postseason for them if they didn’t win the Tournament. Still, they had managed to beat hapless Washington State and then upset second-seeded Washington the next night, and early on, it looked like they might pull off their improbable run to the title game, sprinting out to a 32-16 lead in the first half. Then they ran into Leon Powe.
Get your hands off me! I’m putting this here ball into this here bucket, and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it!
Of course, it took a team effort from the Bears to battle back from a 16-point deficit, including trailing by 7 with less than 3 minutes to go, but it often seemed that most of that team effort involved feeding Powe in the low post over and over and over again. And why wouldn’t they? The man was virtually unstoppable that night, shooting 14 of 17 from the floor and 13 of 18 from the line. You don’t really need an offense when you have Leon Powe, but the Bears did need every one of his tournament-record 41 points (and two overtimes) to hold off the Ducks in a game that had me (alone at home) screaming at my television and nearly convinced me to drive down to LA for the final. These Bears should have been upset, but Powe put them up on his back and barreled them into the final virtually singlehandedly.
Of course, the Bears (i.e. Powe) were clearly wiped out from their herculean effort, and they never put up much of a fight against UCLA the next day in the final, but for his efforts, Powe was still named tournament MVP, one of only two MVPs to come from a team that didn’t win the tourney.
This could have been a really great team. Powe, Ubaka, Midgley, Hardin, Robertson (and Benson off the bench) came the closest since the ‘97 team of actually winning the Pac-10. They deserved better than a first-round flameout in the tourney.
2. Cal beats Clemson to win the NIT title (1999)
There are certainly times when an NIT bid feels like a consolation prize, and not a very good one at that. For California, 1999 was not one of those times. Having been banned from postseason play the previous year (not that they would have qualified anyway) due to fallout from the Todd Bozeman scandal, any sort of postseason play had to be a welcome opportunity for the Bears, and they sure made the most of that opportunity.
1999 was an up-and-down year for the Bears. They had 4 seniors, but all 4 were playing only their second year for the Bears, having transferred to Cal 2 years earlier. They displayed plenty of talent at times, defeating three top 10 teams that year (North Carolina, UCLA, and Arizona), but struggled with consistency in Pac-10 play, finishing the season at just 8-10 (17-11 overall), not quite good enough for an NCAA invite.
But the Bears left all that behind once the postseason began; whether it was perseverance or just luck, Cal squeaked by opponent after opponent during their charmed run to New York. They overcame a 12-point deficit to defeat Fresno State, then fought back from 17 down at DePaul to avenge their only non-conference loss of the season. Even against Colorado State, which should have been an easier game, the Bears blew a 21-point lead and actually trailed with just over 2 minutes to go.
Ben Braun and Geno Carlisle led the Bears past several tricky opponents on their way to New York.
Not until the semifinal against Oregon did the Bears have a relatively easy time of it; against a team that beat them twice in the regular season, including a win in Eugene that possibly kept them out of the NCAA tournament, the Bears jumped to a big lead early in the second half and the Ducks were never able to get back into it.
All this set up the final against Clemson in Madison Square Garden, a back-and-forth affair that was not decided until the Tigers missed a 15-footer as time expired. Geno Carlisle was the last-second hero, as his 3-point play with less than 5 seconds left gave the Bears a one-point victory, but it was Sean Lampley who would be honored as tournament MVP, capping a brilliant run that foreshadowed greater things to come for the future Pac-10 Player of the Year and NBA Draft Pick.
Geno hits the tournament-winning shot. Everybody celebrate at midcourt!
Yeah, the NIT is not the Big Dance, but this was still a fabulous moment in Braun’s tenure. Unlike the Sweet 16 appearance two years earlier, this tournament was won with Braun’s own players, most of whom agreed to come to Cal under the specter of looming NCAA sanctions. Besides the fact that it brought Cal its first postseason title since the 1959 NCAA Title (and only its second ever), there’s the simple fact that in college basketball, only a couple teams get to end the season on a winning note: the postseason tournament champions, a couple Ivy League teams (no conference tournament), and possibly a few teams terrible enough to not make their conference tournaments, but lucky enough to win their regular season finale. There’s no piddling third-tier bowl games to give .500 teams a chance to end the season on an upbeat note. No, these Bears got to end their season, and in some cases their careers, celebrating at midcourt, and that’s a special feeling for everyone involved.
1. Cal beats Villanova to make the Sweet 16 (1997)
Of course, the Sweet 16 run in ‘97 is the #1 moment of the Braun Era. It was Braun’s high-water mark, which made us all love him instantly (and immediately shove an 8-year contract extension his way), but it also caused us him to labor under heightened expectations through the rest of his tenure.
Still, that was a special year. Not much was expected from Braun’s first season at Cal (the Bears were picked to finish in the bottom half of the conference), but in the wake of the Bozeman mess, Braun took a senior-laden squad and put them back together again. Though they ultimately fell short in their challenge for the conference crown (they tied for second), there were some definite highlights along the way, including an upset of Arizona, the eventual national champion, to close the regular season (a game that could have easily made this list). A 12-6 conference record earned them a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament and a first-round matchup with Princeton.
Tony Gonzalez was a big part of the last Cal team to really make a dent in the NCAA tournament, helping take down Villanova in the process.
Led by seniors Randy Duck and Alfred Grigsby (but unfortunately not Ed Gray, out with a broken foot), and junior Tony Gonzalez (who would subsequently leave for the NFL) Cal avoided the 5-12 upset bid by Princeton, and then defeated 4th-seeded Villanova to reach the tournament’s second weekend. For all it had been through over the past two years, even though this team was set to graduate, and NCAA sanctions were coming, it was a hopeful time for Cal. Ben Braun was our clean-as-a-whistle savior, the man who would lead Cal basketball to greatness both on and off the court.
For those who want to remember this team, a video can be found here of the last time the Bears played in the Sweet 16.
One can only wonder how far the Bears might have gotten had they not lost leading scorer and Pac-10 Player of the Year Ed Gray to injury. Could they have beaten North Carolina? Might Braun have a Final Four on his résumé? A triumphant moment, to be sure, but it could have been even sweeter.
Anyway, that’s my list, and when I look back on Cal basketball (including my time as an undergraduate) this is what I’ll remember. Perhaps your list is different; did I miss anything big?
In any case, one final time, I want to thank Ben Braun for 12 years of hard work and dedication to California basketball, and I wish him the best of luck at Rice. Go Bears! (and Owls?)