Cal sophomore forward Ryan Anderson called it "ridiculous," senior wing Eric Vierneisel opted for "crazy" and coach Ben Braun admitted he was nervous.
"I thought the clock would never stop," Braun said.
Arizona State made seven three-pointers in the final 1:07 Saturday night, but Cal had built enough of a cushion and poise at the free-throw line to cling to a season-saving 76-73 victory in front of 9,827 at Ned Wulk Court in Tempe.
The Bears (15-9, 6-7) snapped a two-game skid by making 15 of 18 foul shots in the final two minutes and playing one of their best defensive games of the season in response to back-to-back defensive debacles. Oregon made a school-record 18 three-pointers on Feb. 9, and Arizona scored on 15 consecutive possessions and scored 52 second-half points Thursday.
Cal limited the Sun Devils (16-8, 6-6) to one field goal during a 12:38 stretch that spanned halftime and pushed its lead to 40-32. Post Jeff Pendergraph and guard James Harden were held to a combined 14 points on 4-of-15 shooting after torching the Bears for 53 points on 22-of-31 shooting in their 99-90 double-overtime win last month.
"I haven't seen us play with that kind of defense or with that kind of urgency in a while," said Anderson, who led Cal with 28 points and 11 rebounds and moved his road averages to 25.8 and 12.5. "For a while, we'd just say, 'We lost. Let's move on and try to win the next one.' "
But the Bears realized that they are running out of "next ones." There are five regular-season games remaining, and it is widely projected that they'll have to get to .500 in conference play - meaning winning three of the final five - to get an NCAA Tournament nod.
"We read the papers and see the standings, and we know that we've put ourselves in a position in which we can't let any more of these games slip away," said Vierneisel, who drew a charge, blocked two shots and had two steals after earning the second-half start. "We want to keep playing, and we've got to keep winning to do that."
Apparently, the message Braun has preached his entire career finally sunk in at halftime. That's when sophomore forward Jamal Boykin led a spirited exchange, challenging his teammates to be dedicated to defense.
"In the locker room, we were screaming at each other to get each other focused and ready to play defense like we need to," Anderson said. "We needed to go out and defend like we haven't all year, like this was our last game.
"I don't want to say that we settled in the past sometimes, but sometimes after a team makes a run on us, we tend to put our heads down. Tonight that didn't happen."
That contention is confirmed in the numbers for just about every Cal player.
Anderson added a career-high four steals to his offensive barrage, sophomore wing Patrick Christopher had 20 points and five rebounds and sophomore point guard Jerome Randle went for 10 points and four assists. Freshman forward Harper Kamp chipped in seven points and six rebounds, senior center DeVon Hardin had six points and seven rebounds despite foul trouble and Vierneisel held Ty Abbott, who had a game-high 30 points, without a field goal for the first 12:04 of the second half.
"You can't just talk about playing defense; it takes a concerted effort," Braun said. "There's nothing easy or glamorous about it, but it has to become a habit. If our guys enjoyed the victory, they have to enjoy what defense did."
The win marked Braun's 550th career victory and the Bears' seventh in the last eight in Tempe.
"I think No. 551 will be better, and then the same goes for 552," Braun joked. "Those are things you look at when you're done coaching. I'll remember this game because of the game, not the number."