WESTWOOD, Calif. -- California sleep-walked through the entire first half, and much of the second, and failed to make a field goal for over eight minutes in the middle of the game, but then, by sheer force of will, freshman Jabari Bird picked the Bears up off the hardwood at Pauley Pavilion and put them on his back.
Bird went off for 12 points over 7:26 in the second half, as Cal went on a 17-4 run that would have made Lazarus blush, getting to within three of host UCLA, but the Bruins would have none of that, and pulled away over the final seven minutes of the game, cruising in with a comfortable, 76-64 win.
“We’ve got so many things going on, in terms of playing hard all the time,” said head coach Mike Montgomery. “We finally start getting some stops and getting out on the break and guys got some shots down, and all of the sudden, we came to life. It’s like the chicken or the egg; what do you do? If everything goes down for you early, or how hard you have to work to get the stuff to work for you. I think it helped that Jabari came in and made a shot, just got us going a little bit.”
The loss is the second in a row for Cal (14-6, 5-2 in Pac-12), which started out the Pac-12 season undefeated at 5-0 before heading down to Los Angeles, where the Bears fell on Wednesday to USC, 77-69. This is the first time since the 2008-09 season that Cal has lost to both Southern California teams in Southern California.
“We’ve lost two in a row. This is a good team. UCLA is a good team. To come in here and beat them, you’re going to have to really play well,” Montgomery said. “I don’t care what – you’re going to have to come in here and really play well. They’re going to have to figure out how to win in this league, because there’s not any games that people are going to lay down. It’s pretty simple: We’re going to have to play hard and with some emotion for us to win. It’s as simple as that. Without that, we’re going to have a hard time in any game we play.”
Next week, the Bears will square off with Arizona State on Wednesday and No. 1 Arizona on Saturday – a game that’s already a sell-out.
“Wednesday’s a must-win, for us,” Montgomery said. “We’ve got to come out with everything we’ve got on Wednesday. It doesn’t matter what Saturday is.”
After Cal got within two points 10:57 into the game on a David Kravish jumper, UCLA tore off a 14-4 run than ended when a Richard Solomon dunk sparked a 10-3 run. After another Solomon slam with two minutes to go in the first half, though, the Bears went ice cold. From then until a Bird three-pointer with 12:17 left in the second half, Cal went 0-for-10 as the Bruins (16-4, 5-2) built up a 17-point lead.
After hitting two free throws with 13:13 left, and then grabbing a defensive board on a missed lay-up by Bryce Alford, Bird nailed a three from the top of the arc off a swing pass from Tyrone Wallace. Suddenly, a three by Cobbs and a jumper by Jordan Mathews (who finished with a team-high 18 on 6-of-12 from the field) cut the lead to 10 with 10:59 left, and then Bird – off a steal from Mathews – hit a lay-up to cut the lead to eight at 10:25. Another jumper by Bird at 9:55 cut the lead to six, and after Bird blocked a Kyle Anderson lay-up in the lane, he went the other way and hit yet another jumper with 9:16 left, drawing the foul as the ball rattled up and off the iron and through the net. After completing the and-one, Bird had almost single-handedly pulled Cal to within three points.
“It’s good to see Jabari get out there, get a couple easy ones in there, get his confidence back. Hopefully, he can carry it over to Wednesday and be that much better,” Solomon said. “He was full of energy. He started playing harder on offense, we started playing harder on defense, running the floor. It’s a good thing he wasn’t just standing, moping around. He was being active out there.”
But, Bird couldn’t maintain that kind of output, especially since this was just his third game back from missing three weeks of playing time due to a sprained ankle.
“He gets down on himself. It doesn’t do him any good to be tentative. If you make a mistake, fine, you might come out, but at least you’ll do something. You’re a player. Go play. Go make plays. He was able to do that,” Montgomery said. “He was able to get a foul and make a shot and all of the sudden, he came to life, and it helped us.”
After hitting his free throw at 9:16, Bird tapped himself out of the game just over a minute later, having missed a jumper and two free throws.
“Honestly, it was me missing three weeks. I didn’t have the energy. I wasn’t in good enough shape to keep it going. I got really tired, and I felt that if I hadn’t missed those three weeks, and I went on that same run, I’d have been able to push through it,” Bird said, before saying he “definitely” ran out of gas. “I’ve got to get my conditioning back and get in better shape. I was disappointed in the fact that I had to sub myself out because I didn’t have enough energy to keep up with the team.
“When I’m on the court, I want to stay out there. I hate taking myself out, because I was a little gassed. I’ve just got to get back in the gym and keep working.”
While Bird could not shoulder the load he wanted to, Wallace had his second straight horrific shooting game, going 0-for-8 from the field, 0-for-5 from three-point range and scoring just two points on free throws.
Against the Trojans, Wallace went 2-for-10 from the field and 1-for-5 from three-point range. His tendency to take long shots early in the clock instead of trying to break UCLA’s 2-3 zone hurt Cal’s ability to get into an offensive rhythm early.
“Yeah, well, I mean, we really had a rough weekend. Tyrone had a rough weekend, and it’s a rough weekend for us,” Montgomery said. “He’s one of our starters, and it’s kind of like, ‘well, they’re not guarding him, so I’ll shoot it,’ but I’m not sure that’s the answer. We need to get better ball movement.”
The zone defense also choked off the post game. Through the first 11 minutes of the game, David Wear and Travis Wear combined for six rebounds, while Kravish and Solomon had just one board between them. The Bruins also outscored Cal 32-24 in the paint, as Solomon was held to nine points and Kravish was held to seven, though the pair did finish with a combined 21 rebounds.
“The zone really hurt us,” Solomon said. “They were packing it in and we couldn’t really get the ball movement that we needed. They got our guys a little stagnant, so the ball got a little sticky, and it was hard to score.”
Instead, the Bears sent the ball around the horn instead of driving through the zone, which hid some defensive warts in Alford and Zach LaVine. Sending the ball around meant that it more often than not settled into Wallace’s hands for an early shot. When that didn’t work, Cobbs started trying to drive the lane and break the zone, but that wound up being too much of a load to place on him, as he went 4-for-10 from the field and 5-for-8 from the free throw line, not hitting his second shot from the field until there were 11:23 left in the game.
“It gives you an indication of what we can do if we just play hard,” Montgomery said of the late-game run. “We have to play together. We can’t rely on any one person. We can’t expect Justin to do everything. He’s got to get people the ball, and they’ve got to make plays, and then vice versa. They’ve got to make plays and get him the ball where he can score. It seems like, every time, we just throw it to him and expect him to make a play, and that’s not fair to him. It’s not going to work.”