Ultimately, short-handed Cal could not hold off No. 8 Syracuse, which took charge in the second half and claimed a 92-81 win in the semifinals of the Maui Invitational.
The Bears (5-1) will play in Wednesday’s third-place game against Dayton (5-1), which lost 67-66 to Baylor in the other semifinal.
No one was more impressed by the Bears than Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose club beat Cal 66-60 in the NCAA tournament at San Jose last March.
“First of all, we saw just a different team. I thought watching Cal yesterday that their team this year is much better than last year’s team,” Boeheim said.
“I thought they battled their tails off, and it took a long time for us to get a solid run out of the offensive end. They were unbelievable today.
“I didn’t even know how good until I looked at the stat sheet. I knew they were pretty good, but they were better. It was a really good battle.”
The Bears played without senior forward Richard Solomon, sidelined by a corneal abrasion to his right eye that he suffered the day before in Cal’s win over Arkansas.
Cal forward David Kravish, who had 15 points before fouling out in the final 3 minutes, came away feeling just as impressed by his team as Boeheim was.
“Yeah, I agree a hundred percent. We’ve got a fire and tenacity in us this year,” he said. “As opposed to last year where we were taking a couple games for granted where we had a few in a row.
“I think we are ready and focused on each individual game and where is this bringing in all of our energy and all of our heart.”
No argument from senior point guard Justin Cobbs, who had 18 points, eight assists, five rebounds and four steals.
“I’d just like to say I’m proud of my team. I like the way we fought without our big guy, Richard Solomon,” Cobbs said. “I think we played hard and gave them everything we wanted. Just couldn’t pull it out at the end.
“All credit to them. They played hard. I’m just proud of these guys and we’ll bounce back tomorrow.”
Cal and Syracuse were even at 41-all at halftime, but the Orange (6-0) surged into control when Kravish went to the bench with his fourth foul midway through the second half.
Cal’s freshmen delivered big performances, starting with Jabari Bird, who scored 17 points.
“I just think Bird is one of the better freshmen composure-wise that I’ve seen,” Boeheim said. “And he gives them a really steady guy. It’s just such a different team.”
Freshman Jordan Mathews came off the bench to score 12 points and seldom-used Kameron Rooks added five points.
“It’s really encouraging today because we had some freshmen who plays who haven’t normally played,” Kravish said. “So when you’re going up against No. 8 in the country and you’re playing some freshmen who haven’t been playing, you might expect them to really step up and play great. So it’s super encouraging and really looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Cobbs also was pleased with the rookies.
“They came in and stepped up, weren’t afraid, and played with a lot of heart and confidence,” he said.
Coach Mike Montgomery said there were some lapses, especially on defense, but was willing to look at the big picture, too.
“I’m proud of our guys. There are some things that I really like about this group in terms of their fight,” he said. “We just have to understand that you have to be better than a team like this.”
Cal shot 52 percent from the field but just 6 for 21 against Syracuse’s rangy 2-3 zone defense and had 13 turnovers. The Bears had their best success scoring in transition before the Orange was able to set up its defense.
Syracuse shot 53 percent from the field and made 23 of 24 free throws.
Cal is 0-3 all-time vs. Syracuse, including a 66-60 loss in the NCAA tournament last year at San Jose.