NIT: Bird In the Zone

BERKELEY -- Jabari Bird drops 19 as Cal breezes past Arkansas in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament at Haas Pavilion.

BERKELEY -- Fittingly, the last game at Haas Pavilion for Justin Cobbs, Jeff Powers and the concussed Richard Solomon was perhaps California's most dominant effort of the season, as the Bears went up by as many as 24 points with 14 minutes to go, before finally putting away Arkansas, 75-64, to advance to Dallas for the quarterfinals of the National Invitational Tournament on Wednesday at 6 p.m. Pacific, in Dallas, Tex., against Larry Brown and SMU.

Starting his second straight game, freshman Jabari Bird was protected defensively by a 3-2 zone scheme that – counter to Mike Montgomery's historical tendencies – lasted the full 40 minutes.

"I've been practicing well, I've been going harder, and I'm just paying attention and focusing more on little things," Bird said. "It's not all about scoring. Tonight, I tried to get a lot of rebounds and that got me going."

Bird's game-high 19 points were the second-highest total of his career, and his highest output since his career-high 24 way back on Nov. 15 against Oakland. Beyond that, Bird helped make up in part for the absence of Solomon with a career-high eight rebounds.

"We knew they were going to press us, try and force turnovers and trap, so we just had to stay calm," said Bird. "We weren't able to run the offense through Justin. I was able to get the ball across and get into the offense."

The one pall cast on the proceedings was a broken nose suffered by Ricky Kreklow with 4:50 left in the game, when Bobby Portis drove hard to the basket and elbowed Kreklow in the face, spilling blood in the court.

"He got cracked pretty good," Montgomery said. "10 o'clock practice, we've got to be out of here by 12:30 to get to Dallas. Hopefully, Ricky can get a mask, because he helps us in so many ways, but we're kind of running out of big folk."

The Razorbacks (22-12) never led for as much as a second on Monday, and saw their vaunted ‘fastest 40 minutes' offense slowed down to a crawl when 6-foot-10 Portis proved to be the only player who could make a shot over the first 12 minutes, as Portis went 3-for-4 as the rest of the Arkansas team went 0-for-15.

"They don't have a lot of guys that are pure shooters," Montgomery said. "I think the percentages are good from three, but I felt Ty [Wallace], in particular, at the top of the zone there, did a really nice job of taking away the high post, and trying to match with our guards a little bit, we tried to work with Jabari and Jordan [Mathews] not to watch the ball, but to find somebody, and I thought they did a pretty good job of that."

Wallace went 5-for-9 from the field for 16 points, dishing out three assists and tallying one of Cal's three steals, with the other two coming from an unlikely source – big man David Kravish -- who finished with 13 points and three blocks.

"We wanted to start off in the zone, because last time we played them, the zone really hurt them, and that's what we did," Wallace said. "As the game went on, they couldn't score, so we stayed in the zone."

For eight minutes and 28 seconds in the first half, the Razorbacks went without scoring a single basket, going 0-for-13 from the field, as the Bears (22-12) mounted a 14-0 run. The lead got as large as 31-8 before the Razorbacks closed the half on a 9-4 run to bring the score to a more manageable 38-23.

"We just had to take advantage," Wallace said. "They weren't making perimeter shots, so we were able to rebound and get out. We actually got quite a few offensive rebounds, but we just rebounded and got out and took advantage of it, and that's how we got the big lead in the first half."

The 3-2 zone Montgomery employed dared Arkansas to shoot the ball from the perimeter, and afterwards, Razorbacks coach Mike Anderson said he knew that, based on the teams' last meeting, he knew the Bears would go to zone. In the first half, though, Arkansas went 1-for-12 from beyond the arc.

"We're thin," Montgomery said. "We've got some people down, so we looked back at the film from Hawaii, and we'd had quite a bit of success with the zone. We actually worked for three days on recovering back zone, covering the zone, trying to get the high post down. They had 79 shots to our 47, so thank goodness they didn't make a lot of them."

Arkansas went 25-for-78 from the floor for the game, and 4-for-24 from three-point range, starting the game hitting four of its first 29 shots, and while the Razorbacks pulled down 16 offensive rebounds, their poor shooting rendered those moot.

"We're not very big in the zone right now, so we tried to challenge the guards to go get rebounds," Montgomery said. "Jabari did a terrific job of rebounding the ball, but we just felt that they run a lot of motion, and kind of an equal-opportunity offense, a lot of screens that we could potentially get in foul trouble. With the subs that we had and the people that we were going to need to come off the bench and play, that we could get in trouble in a man situation. That kind of proved to be the case."

One of the players to come off the bench was freshman point guard Sam Singer, who dished out four assists in his first six minutes on the floor. His first dime came on a baseline bounce pass to Powers, which the senior turned into a pump-fake step-up two.

"I thought Sam was very good," Montgomery said. "Sam's going to be a really nice player. He really has a nice feel for the game. Five assists, and if he gains his confidence shooting the ball, he really moves the ball. We had a lot of people contributing with that."

With freshman Kameron Rooks still out due to injury, his freshman teammates got a lot of run, with Bird, Singer and Mathews going a collective 10-for-14 from the field in 54 minutes, with Bird going 7-for-8.

Apart from Portis's 4-for-8 performance in the first half, the rest of the Arkansas side went a woeful 6-for-32 before the break, as Cal rained in buckets from just about every spot on the court, going 15-for-24 from the field, scoring 14 points in the paint and 11 points on the fast break, while the Razorbacks scored 0 off the break.

The second half was all about call and response for the Bears, who answered two straight shots to open the second half with a 13-0 run of their own.

"We came out really moving the ball," Montgomery said. "It was really nice to see. The ball was really moving. They really rely on their pressure. They want to turn you over. They want to get turnovers for baskets, and we fell prey a little bit. We had too many turnovers, but by and large, we did a great job of moving the ball, and playing small probably helps that, and by that, I mean having Ricky and Jeff in there to give us an additional ball handler. Jumping off to a lead like that was critical. I felt like we probably should have taken 20-plus into the locker room at halftime. There was a little bit of a concern that we got it back to 15, but the first five minutes of the second half were critical. We jumped back on them and got it back to 20 and made it really difficult for them."

Despite coughing up 16 turnovers and allowing 13 points off of those turnovers, Cal was able to match Arkansas's pace and scored 15 points off the break, while the Razorbacks scored just 11.

Senior point guard Cobbs went just 3-for-7 from the floor and scored nine points, but dished out six assists to just two turnovers against a high-pressure defense.

"I thought he did a good job, particularly early," Montgomery said. "I thought he really distributed the ball. He made some really nice plays to get his teammates involved, but we shared the responsibility. That's the thing, is that Jabari dribbled it up some, Ty dribbled it up some. I thought, by and large, it was a really good team effort. We played any number of different people that played key roles at any given time."

Cal won't have much time to rest on its laurels, with a quick turnaround to Dallas for a Wednesday night tilt with the Mustangs.

"We kind of wanted to play Monday, I guess, because we thought the Sunday crowd might not be real good, and the last day you can play this third game is Wednesday, so we've got a pretty quick turnaround, and in some ways, you were hoping LSU might win, so that we could get them back over here," Montgomery said. "SMU's really good defensively. Larry Brown's done a terrific job. The good news is, he's older than me, and there are not many of those out there."

When asked how much history he has with the former NBA head coach Brown, Montgomery said, "We haven't been married or anything like that. We haven't been involved, but I've known Larry a long time, both in college and in the pros. I've done some of the Jordan camps with him. He's an interesting guy, and obviously a very good basketball coach. He's done an unbelievable job with their program this year, so they're very well coached. They're really good defensively. They were down five at half, and the next time I turned around, they were up a bunch against an extremely athletic LSU team. We know prep time is going to be at a premium."

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