JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The end came suddenly and without mercy, like walking into a wall in the dark. Or turning a corner and getting a sharp elbow over the eyelid.
Except there was no shock to what happened to Cal in the second round of the NCAA tournament Sunday at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
Having drawn No. 1 seed Duke, the eighth-seeded Golden Bears were quickly reminded that despite their best efforts and intentions, certain disadvantages simply were not to be overcome.
Cal's 68-53 loss was a graphic illustration in why an excellent big team will spank a very good small team nearly every time they share the floor. Duke was longer, taller by three to six inches at just about every position. Though the Blue Devils may have been no more physical, the ease with which they tossed their smaller opponents about made it look as if they were.
"We had matchup problems across the board," Cal coach Mike Montgomery conceded.
Duke's defense, switching seamlessly and extending well beyond the 3-point arc, with arms flicking out to deflect a couple 3-point attempts, annoyed everything the Bears tried to do. Taking only 12 3-pointers and making only three, they were disallowed from playing as they would have needed to for a reasonable chance at winning.
"They just seemed to know us very well," senior Jamal Boykin said. "It seems like the scouting report, they executed it to a tee, so when you have that size and length and you're executing the scouting report very well, it makes it difficult to play against."
Concessions are hard in sports; no competitor easily acknowledges inferiority. Yet the Bears, while accurately noting they didn't play their best game, seemed resigned to accepting that the better team won.
"The effort was there, guys fought," said senior guard Patrick Christopher, a sizable bandage over his left eyelid, which required stitches after he took an elbow from Duke's Jon Scheyer in the opening seconds. "But it happened the way it was supposed to happen."
Bleeding from the gash, Christopher went into the locker room 26 seconds after tipoff, returning with 12:44 left in the half and the Bears trailing 16-11. When they cut it to 20-17 four minutes later, the Blue Devils responded with a 17-7 run to take a 13-point lead into halftime.
Cal (24-11) never threatened the rest of the way, getting no closer than seven (44-37, with 13:30 to play) as Duke worked off 7-foot-1 center Brian Zoubek (14 points, 13 rebounds) inside and shooting guard Nolan Smith (game-high 20 points) outside.
The Blue Devils (31-5), playing with the savvy and assurance of a squad with considerable experience and seven McDonald's High School All-Americans, looked as a No. 1 seed should. In a word: impressive.
Cal, by contrast, looked like a team without answers.
"We came out with good intentions," said Boykin, who transferred to Cal after a freshman season at Duke. "We believed."
Belief, or faith, seemed to underscore Cal's season, certainly the final months of the careers of seniors Jerome Randle, Theo Robertson, Christopher and Boykin. They were in the program three years ago, when the Bears finished eighth in the Pac-10 and two years ago, when they slipped into the NIT despite a ninth-place finish in the conference.
From the moment Montgomery replaced Ben Braun after the 2007-08 season, it was known he and his new team were stylistically incompatible. Montgomery likes to play off his big men, yet his most skilled players were all 6-7 or shorter.
Yet the coach and the players compromised, made it work. They reached the NCAAs last season, losing in the first round, and came back to surpass the 23-win barrier for the first time since 1960 — and provide Cal its first regular-season Pac-10 title since that same year.
Given that, and the resounding first-round victory over Louisville here Friday night, it can be safely assumed that these Bears maxed out.
"For us to come here and really just play hard against Louisville — everyone didn't think we were going to win that game — and we were able to come in and play really hard against Duke," Randle said. "I'm really proud of my team.
"It's obviously over now, but I'm proud of the way we hustled and played hard."
The Golden Bears went out knowing their best probably would not have been enough to extend their season into next weekend. And knowing with emphatic certainty that there are better teams advancing in the tournament.
At least one team, and that's all that was needed.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.