BERKELEY – Since an upset of then No. 1 Arizona, the California men's basketball team hasn't played its best basketball, going 2-2 in the last four games and almost playing themselves out of a presumptive NCAA Tournament bid. On Sunday night, the Bears didn't erase their worst resume-ruining loss from earlier this season, but they did finally get the better of Pac-12 cellar-dweller USC to the tune of 77-64.
The Trojans (10-17, 1-13 in Pac-12) were weakened by the suspension of star guard Byron Wesley, and while the game didn't go exactly as planned, Cal was able to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive and well. Down by three at halftime, the Bears (18-9, 9-5) overcame a sloppy performance to take win 77-64 over the team they lost to just a month ago.
David Kravish and sprinting out to a 7-0 lead to start the game, their offense stalled throughout the first half, at times going several minutes between field goals. USC wasn't much better. The Trojans went over six minutes between baskets twice – once in each half. Cal used that drought to engineer a 16-2 spurt, which turned into a 24-8 run to finish off the game.
"It was a win we had to have, and it was a win we got," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "I would have been very disappointed if we didn't. We're not into quality points, we're just trying to win games. We're tied for third, and right now we're in as good of shape as we can be in."
The Bears began the game with the same line up from the last three games earlier in the season, with Justin Cobbs, Tyrone Wallace and Ricky Kreklow in the backcourt. However, Cal quickly went small and stayed with the smaller lineup for a long time, often playing with only one big man and at times having Kreklow play the four. Center Solomon, who also had to deal with early foul trouble, played just five minutes in the second half, as Montgomery seemed to stick with the smaller lineup against the Trojans. Despite this smaller lineup, the Bears had nine blocks – eight in the first half – to tie their season high. Montgomery felt the team wasn't playing well offensively, and took out the struggling Wallace after he failed to produce late in the first half.
"We went small. We took a little bit of a gamble, because we were stagnant offensively," said Motgomery. "We put Ricky at the four. Jovanovic really hurt us at their place, had his career night, and hurt us again, but Ricky fronted and David guarded [Omar] Oraby. [Kreklow] got some steals and used his quickness to get around."
[ANALYSIS: Ken Clampett Goes Inside the Numbers]
In addition to Cobbs' game high 22 points, Kravish played well early as he led the team in the first ten minutes, scoring eight, before slowing down and finishing the game with nine points. Kravish's frontcourt partner Solomon had an unusually quiet night, contributing five points and six rebounds, well below his double-double average. Kreklow added 12 points, while Wallace and freshman Jabari Bird made it four scorers in double figures for Cal as they each contributed 10 points.
"As a freshman, sometime you do too much and you try to accomplish more than what it is," said Cobbs. "I think early [Bird] was forcing the issue, because he had so many high expectations. He just wanted to play well, and when it got late, he just started slowing the game down. [He started to] catch and shoot, which is something so simple, yet something he is so good at. I think when he simplifies the game and reads the game well, it helps him play better rather than trying to force things and do something he's not ready to do."
The Bears shot 48.3% from the field and 41.7% from three, while USC was only marginally worse, shooting 43.4% from the field and 36.4% from three. Cal won the rebounding battle, 35-31, and the turnover battle, 14-9, which allowed for 12 second-chance points for the Bears, to go along with an 18-11 points-off-turnovers margin.
"We're still happy about [the win]. We've had struggles at home lately, and it feels good to finally get one back," said Kreklow. "Especially a team that we gave one up, earlier in the year. They're a good team, but it's a team we should beat. We know we can play a lot better and get that win, but every game is satisfying considering how close the race is in the Pac-12 for those top three, top four spots."
The Trojans were led by Pe'Shon Howard, who added 17 points and kept the Trojans in it for most of the game. He also added four assists and three rebounds, while fellow guard J.T. Terrell contributed 14 points and three assists, and big man Nikola Jovanovic added 14 points and six rebounds.
"I thought we played very well in the first half, we only had three turnovers, we played very good defense," said USC head coach Andy Enfield. "They shot 37 percent from the field. Then in the second half, it was a tight game and with about seven minutes left they ramped their intensity up and we missed a lot of open three's, a one-and-one and had a lot of turnovers and they scored every time and they shot 60 percent in the second. I've got to give them credit, when they ramped it up in that four-minute stretch, we missed some easy shots and turned the ball over and they happened to score every possession down the court."
Cal came out of the locker room on fire after the break, and shot a blistering 60% from the field.
"We spread the court. We changed what we were doing and we opened up the court a little bit, and made it easier for him to go," said Montgomery. "The stuff we were trying to do early, they were just really jamming the paint. That's what [USC] do, they jam the paint. We got the post up away from the basket and it opened up some driving lanes. Justin was good at finishing, and Justin played very well in the second half."
In the first half Cal's offense was extremely sluggish as they shot 36.7% from the field, resulting in a paltry 27 points. On the other bench, the Trojans didn't fair much better. USC went on many droughts throughout the first half as the Trojans shot 37.9% from the field and 50% from three, going 3-of-6.
"It's not very complex," said Montgomery. "Somebody's got to make shots and if you don't make shots you're going to have a hard time beating anybody. If you do, you're going to be in pretty good shape."
However at halftime, it all changed again for the Bears. After a big run put them within striking distance, they proceeded to strike while the iron was hot and finish the Trojans off. Cal took the lead with 16:26 left, and never looked back.
"We can't sit back. We got to get up, and we got to get into people," said Montgomery. "We got to force mistakes, and we're not physical enough. We are not a physical basketball team, so if we sit back let people do unto us, then we have problems. We have to get up and try to get into people, and force some turnovers, and get out on the break a little bit."
This is important win for a Bears squad that was able to avenge a poor lose from earlier in the year. Cal looked like a dangerous tournament team after defeating the No. 1 ranked team in the nation and starting 5-0 in Pac-12 play, but if they want to assure themselves a spot in the March tournament, they will have to play at a level similar to that of the second half, not of the first, for the rest of the season.
-- With the win, Montgomery moved to within one victory of Denny Crum on the NCAA's all-time coaching win list. Montgomery is currently 27th with 674 wins, while Crum is 26th with 675.
-- Cal tallied eight blocks in the first half and finished with a season-high-tying nine against USC. The Bears had nine blocks against Dayton in November.
-- Cal also put together three runs of 11-0 -- one in the first half and two more in the second. The last run moved the Bears from a 56-53 deficit to a 64-56 advantage, one that they would not surrender.
-- Cobbs increased his career point total to 1,354 with his 22 point game, moving past Jackie Ridgle (1,343, 1969-1971) and into 16th place on Cal's all-time list. Roy Fisher is next up at No. 15, with his 1,382 points from 1988 to 1991.
-- Cobbs' game-high seven assists moved him to within 2 of Jason Kidd, who dished out 494 helpers from 1993-1994. Cobbs is currently fifth on the school's all-time list with 492.
-- Solomon moved into the Bears' career top-10 in rebounding, now with 702 after pulling down six boards against USC. He is 10th in school history, just behind Darrall Imhoff, who had 712 from 1958-60.
-- Kreklow scored 12 points, his third double-digit scoring game of the year, and first since scoring 11 points against Fresno State on Dec. 14.
-- Kravish matched his career high with five blocks, with four coming in the first half. He also recorded five stops against Dayton, and against Colorado last season.
-- Kravish also pulled down 10 rebounds, the ninth time this season he's reached double figures.
-- Bird finished with 10 points and two steals in 21 minutes, the second straight game he's scored in double figures after scoring 11 against UCLA last Wednesday.
-- Bird accomplished the feat thanks to two clutch three-pointers late in the game, and speaking of three-pointers, both Cobbs and Jordan Mathews upped their game in the trey department. Cobbs went 1-for-1 and is now 12-for-29 in Pac-12 play (41.4%), while Mathews also went 1-for-1 to up his Pac-12 three-point shooting percentage to 46.3%.
-- With the win, and an Arizona State loss to Utah, the Bears moved into a third-place tie in the Pac-12.
Cal's 24-8 run to end the game wasn't just all because of Justin Cobbs. Ken Clampett goes inside the…