SAN JOSE -- He wasn't even on the floor at the finish Thursday night. He wasn't in the starting lineup, either. But you could make the case that Robert Thurman supplied the heart and soul -- and especially the joy -- of Cal's upset victory over UNLV.

"He really wanted this," coach Mike Montgomery said of Thurman. "He was fired up."

That was during the game. Afterward, Thurman sat in one corner of the Bears' locker room, in a very non-fired-up hazy sort of foggy daze. Had all of that just happened?

Yes. It had happened. Cal, a No. 12 seed, had defeated the fifth-seeded Runnin' Rebels 64-61. And Thurman, a walk-on transfer from a small military college in Vermont three years ago, had just played the game of his life in the most important game of the season.

"I just got really lucky," Thurman said.

No, he got March Madnessed. Thurman was the textbook example of why the NCAA tournament can grab America's eyeballs and make the country actually care about college basketball for a few weeks each year.

Two hours earlier, the senior had been another anonymous face among hundreds of anonymous faces on dozens of teams in the NCAA field.

Then, suddenly, he became wildly and sensationally famous, bringing the Cal-favoring crowd at HP Pavilion to its feet. Thurman was the highlight guy for the most important chunk of Thursday's game, the one that allowed Cal to take an eight-point lead into the final four minutes and gave it the cushion to survive a nervous home stretch.


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In that important chunk of the game: Thurman took six shots. Here is what happened on those six shots:

Dunk.

Dunk.

Dunk.

Dunk.

Dunk.

Dunk.

"We teach shot selection," Montgomery said of Thurman's performance. "And for him, that's a good shot."

"Yeah, it is," Thurman agreed. "One hundred percent chance of making it."

With each of the dunks, all of them two-handed, the crowd roared louder. The Cal bench grew more confident. Montgomery acted like he expected it. Thurman has started only two games during his three-year career with the Bears. He scored in double figures only twice this season. But as Montgomery noted, Thurman's skill set includes the ability to be strong around the basket.

So when the Cal game plan was drawn up -- a virtuoso one by Montgomery -- a part left the possibility for Thurman to come off the bench and play a significant role.

But this amazing a role? Uh, maybe not. Montgomery's offensive strategy against the UNLV defense sent star players Justin Cobbs and Allen Crabbe into the lane with the ball. This drew double-team attention. And so Cobbs and Crabbe passed to an open Thurman. Who then did what he did.

"Justin and Allen really penetrated well," said Thurman, "and I was wide open underneath the rim. For most guys that are 6-8, it's not very hard to dunk."

His defense was not so shabby, either. Thurman played down low in the zone Montgomery concocted to successfully stifle UNLV top scorer Anthony Bennett.

As Bennett suffered through a 4-for-11 night from the field, Thurman wound up with a blocked shot and created a turnover, as he shared that down-low role with teammates David Kravish and Richard Solomon.

Other Bears contributed plenty to the victory as well, including Crabbe's long-armed defense and Cobbs' court generalship. It gave Cal fans, who relished the rare chance to see their team locally in the NCAA tournament, many delights to savor.

"There were lots of subplots," Montgomery conceded.

None better than Thurman, who played his high school ball at Desert High in the Mojave, near Edwards Air Force Base. He is a military brat, which explains why he began his college life at Norwich, a private school with a corps of cadets and lots of marching.

Somehow, five years later, Thurman ends up being cheered crazily by thousands, then staying two extra nights at the San Jose Fairmont with his teammates after advancing to the next NCAA round.

"Every senior doesn't want the season to end," Thurman said. "I don't think a lot of our guys want our season to end. We played like it. And we got our win."

Hey, it was a slam dunk.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.