Cal Gets Back to Basics

Richard Solomon (USA Today Sports)

California comes out firing with runs to start both halves, allowing it to overcome late-game slipups against UNLV.

SAN JOSE, Calif. – Effort trumped execution, as it has all season long for California.

The Golden Bears didn't have better athletes than UNLV. They didn't play better or smarter than the Runnin' Rebels either, but still came away with the NCAA Tournament second round upset, 64-61, Thursday afternoon at HP Pavilion because they played with more energy than the fifth seed.

Cal put together runs to start the game and again to start the second half, the kind of play that has been its trademark, the kind of play that was the foundation of its seven-game winning streak.

Taking a 7-0 edge just 1:47 after taking the court, fueled by steals from guard Allen Crabbe and forward Richard Solomon, it looked quite similar to the Dec. 9 meeting at Haas Pavilion.

What was different was how Cal responded coming out of the locker room after the break, using four straight points from Crabbe, a jumper from forward David Kravish and Justin Cobbs' three-pointer to take a 37-31 lead, as opposed to having to claw back from behind.

"We made a conscious effort not to let that happen again," Cobbs said.

That put the pressure squarely on UNLV to solve Cal's 1-2-2 zone. That put the pressure squarely on UNLV to come up with stops. That put pressure squarely on UNLV to execute flawlessly down the stretch, none of which it could do.

"We always talk about the first five minutes," Cobbs said. "We went out there with a lot of energy and were able to jump all over them."

"We played really hard, which was something that we have done off and on, not all the time," coach Mike Montgomery said. "It wasn't always smooth."

It was the kind of intensity Cal needed to secure its first tournament win since 2010, which had been lacking during two brutal losses to Stanford at home on Senior Night and to Utah in the Pac-12 Tournament. There were active hands in passing lanes, players diving for loose balls and willing to take a charge. There were drives to the rim instead of settling for jump shots.

That allowed Cal to overcome some shaky moments at the end, including missing eight of its final 12 free throws.

"Couldn't miss a free throw," a laughing Kravish joked in the locker room.

The one area where Cal was able to perform precisely was on its end-of-game fouling to prevent UNLV from tying. Montgomery had decided against such an approach in a win over Oregon State that served as a turning point, but had seen the same move backfire last week in Las Vegas, allowing Utah to hit a three to take the game to overtime and ultimately sent Cal crashing out in the quarterfinals.

Having learned that lesson, this time Montgomery pressed his luck that his players wouldn't allow UNLV to even get three free throws or even a four-point play.

"It worked out," Kravish said. "We ended up fouling twice."

Now to make it to the Sweet 16, Cal must meld both passion and performance Saturday against sturdy Syracuse, which blasted Montana 81-34, and its famed fearsome 2-3 zone defense. Forward Robert Thurman isn't going to get six dunks against a Jim Boeheim-coached team as he did against UNLV, helping to establish an overwhelming 34-18 advantage in points in the paint.

But Cal is still standing, which didn't seem possible after those lazy losses the previous two weeks.

It took two wakeup calls, but Cal remembered what it had to do to be successful.

Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.

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