LOS ANGELES -- It had to end sometime, and on Wednesday at a half-empty Galen Center, California’s undefeated streak to start Pac-12 play finally bit the dust. Last-place USC established inside, found just about any shot it needed when it needed it and completely baffled the Bears, en route to a 77-69 upset win.
“They beat us in every phase of the game,” said head coach Mike Montgomery. “They beat us fair and square. They played better. They had people perform better. They came out with a sense of urgency and we were a step behind, the whole night, both ways.”
While Cal (14-5, 5-1 in Pac-12) had featured a very balanced scoring attack for the past five games – with at least three players scoring in double figures in every conference game, and three games where four or more players scored in double digits – on Wednesday, it was just Jordan Mathews, David Kravish and Justin Cobbs breaking the barrier, while other heretofore dependable scorers went silent.
Cobbs was the only player keeping the Bears in the fight late in the game, scoring 10 points on 3-of-5 shooting, getting to the line with drives and hitting 4-of-6 from the foul line, but that wasn’t enough to make up for a lackluster start. Cobbs finished with 22 points on 7-of-15 from the field and 7-of-9 from the free throw line, with six assists and three boards.
Kravish was a non-factor against the Trojans’ size, going 2-for-6 for four points, with a very quiet six rebounds and an assist until very late in the game, when he got a few easy jumpers to up his point total to 10. Jeff Powers -- who had scored in double figures twice in the first five games – hit just one shot, going 1-for-3 from the field. Tyrone Wallace took several questionable routes to the basket and several even more questionable shots, going a dismal 1-for-7 for his second-worst performance of the season. He went 0-for-3 in the 64-60 win over Oakland, and he hadn’t hit fewer than five field goals in a single game since the 68-54 loss to Creighton on Dec. 22 (four field goals made).
“They had zero at half, both of them,” Montgomery said of Wallace and Kravish. “They didn’t do anything. We didn’t execute, we didn’t set screens where screens needed to be set, we were a step behind, tried to execute certain things and guys went to the wrong spots. Our focus was very, very poor, and there’s no excuse for that.”
Asked if his team was looking ahead to UCLA, Montgomery said, bluntly, “If we were, there’s no excuse for that.”
For the fourth straight game, Bears started off slowly, to put it mildly, but for the first time in conference play, the Bears didn’t pull out of their tailspin after halftime.
Cal was out-scored 20-2 in the paint until scoring six late points down low to narrow the margin to 24-8 in the first half, and by the end of the night, the lane was decidedly property of the Trojans, who drove at-will and out-scored the Bears 44-26.
“They beat us at point of attack, and that makes it really hard to defend at point of attack,” Montgomery said. “When the bigs came over to help – which wasn’t often enough – they’d drop it to the big, because we weren’t back. Defensively, we were abysmal.”
The Bears started off the night shooting a dismal 10-for-31 from the field and could not score the ball outside of three main options: Mathews, Richard Solomon and Cobbs-- who scored 30 of the Bears’ 32 first-half points (Cobbs 12, Mathews 13, Solomon 5). Mathews finished with 18 points, and Solomon with nine.
Instead of hunkering down and tightening up, Cal allowed 6-foot-10 freshman Nikola Jovanovic to go off, scoring 11 of his career-high 20 points after the break, and finishing the night 7-for-9 from the field, 3-for-3 from the free throw line and adding two boards in 24 minutes. USC came in 7-1 when Jovanovich scores in double figures, and 2-8 when he doesn’t, including all five Pac-12 games. He came into Wednesday averaging just 4.8 points per conference game.
“He’s pretty good,” Montgomery said of Jovanovich. “I watched him on tape, and I looked and I thought – I didn’t watch every minute of every game, but I watched him defend, and I watched some guys that had some talent and I said, ‘These guys aren’t bad.’”
Cal was out-worked underneath and faced a decided size deficit against the last-place Trojans, as Kravish was completely taken out of the post game by Omar Oraby and Jovanovic, held to a paltry one shot and two rebounds before the break. 7-foot-2 USC senior Oraby not only locked down Solomon and Kravish with physical play on defense, but also did plenty of damage of his own, scoring nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, including two dunks.
“I think it caused us problems,” Montgomery said of USC’s size. “I don’t think there’s any question that that’s probably the biggest team that we’ve faced. We didn’t have much of an advantage inside, there. We talked about Oraby and trying to attack him off pick-and-rolls, and they did a good job of rotating. If you look at points in the paint statistically – which you don’t like to look at – it was 46 to 22. They just killed us in the paint. That wasn’t just their big guys. That was guys getting in the paint and scoring. To give up that many points in the paint, we tried to put the focus on not allowing them to penetrate. We knew that they were drivers. They got us spread out pretty good and frankly, they just beat us at point of attack, time and time again.”
Perhaps most telling were Solomon’s remarks, who said, when asked what USC was doing so well to take him and Kravish out of their game, said, “Psh, I don’t know.”
Cal was boxed out all night against a towering Trojans lineup, and while the Bears managed 33 rebounds to USC’s 37, 22 of those came from two players – Solomon (13) and Kravish (9). Of the eight Trojans who saw playing time on Wednesday, seven had at least two rebounds, and four had five or more.
“Physically, they’re not bad; Oraby’s big, Jovanovich was obviously very poised,” Montgomery said. “What I had said was, they’re skilled European kids. They’re not physical. But, it turned out they were pretty physical.”
The 15-foot-out game was particularly stout for USC, which saw Byron Wesley open things up with a three and then continue his onslaught, piling up 14 points on 6-of-15 shooting, with seven boards and a team-high four assists.
Pe’Shon Howard was an equally effective scoring option, going 4-for-11 from the field for 10 points, with a game-high nine assists (Cal had 10 as a team) and six boards.
“Pe’Shon Howard’s a fifth-year guy and they’ve got some guys that have been around,” Montgomery said. “Give them credit. They did a hell of a job.”
Transition was also a weak point for the Bears. With 13:10 left in the first half, freshman Jabari Bird coughed up the ball down low to Wesley, who picked off a Bird pass and took it coast-to-coast for a jam, putting USC up by eight.
Then, with just over nine minutes to go, Howard stripped Cobbs on the offensive end and went coast-to-coast for a bucket of his own – an easy lay-in – to once again put the Trojans up by eight, after Cal had closed an 11-point gap down to six.
USC was also effective on the perimeter, hitting 5-of-14 shots from beyond the three-point line, including a 2-for-2 night from Julian Jacobs. In all, four different Trojans hit at least one three-pointer.
“They were organized, they were disciplined, they executed and they had guys make plays,” Montgomery said. “They had guys that had not shot a three in all year – the whole league season – jump up and make threes. We didn’t have that. They out-played us, no question.
“We got pretty self-satisfied with ourselves a little bit, I think, and I don’t think kids recognize why we won some games, and what it takes to win some games in this league. The interesting thing about it is, the people that ‘SC have lost to, we have not played yet. There’s a little bit of a concern there. They’re 0-and-5, but we haven’t played any of the people they’ve played. We’ve got all those people ahead of us. We’d better get back to focus and concentrating and a sense of urgency, or else this won’t be the last time.”