By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY–Grant Mullins hadn’t been himself. The Ivy League graduate transfer gifted just one season in the Cal basketball program, left briefly to be with his family following the death of his grandmother in late November. Upon his return, according to coach Cuonzo Martin, the aggressive, offensive dynamo was off his game.
That’s when the observant coach decided to take Mullins’ foot off the gas. Mullins was removed from the starting lineup for a few games, only to return to starting on Sunday night against Arizona State.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do to put him back in the lineup, because he didn’t lose his spot-he went home to be with his family. I didn’t think he was playing at the level and didn’t have his legs on him until now,” Martin said.
Martin’s hunch regarding Mullins proved spot on when Cal’s 21-4 run to end the ballgame broke open a close game in the Bears’ 81-65 win.
The win broke a two-game losing streak for Cal, in the midst of a daunting stretch of four Top 25-opponents in five games that concludes this weekend in Los Angeles.
Mullins and Ivan Rabb led Cal with 20 points each. In a game where nearly 40 percent of the 117 combined shot attempts for both teams were from three-point range, the advantage would have appeared to go to the guard heavy, perimeter-oriented Sun Devils.
But instead, the nod went to Cal with Rabb and Mullins the biggest beneficiaries. Mullins hit a season-best five threes on eight attempts, and Rabb, Cal’s accomplished post man, stepped away and buried both of his attempts from distance.
“It’s a big part of my game now,” Rabb said. “It makes them guard me on the outside–especially when we go small–it really opens the floor. When I’m able to make that shot, it means we have five shooters on the court.”
With the game on the line and six minutes remaining, Cal trailed by one point as Rabb sat after picking up his fourth foul. Nervous time no doubt for the Bears, but dunks by Kingsley Okoroh and Jabari Bird sparked Cal’s closing run in which they hit their final eight shot attempts.
“When Rabb went out with his fourth, I don’t think we capitalized on that the way we needed to with him not on the floor,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said. “Couldn’t get a lead and then he came back in. They had a few plays that stood out. I thought that Bird’s back cut and dunk, and Okoroh’s put up and dunk were momentum-shifting plays. So we just didn’t handle the last several minutes the way you’d hope.”
Arizona State (8-7, 1-1) was limited to one made field goal over the game’s final 9:44, and they missed 17 of their 24 attempts from distance. ASU leading scorer Tra Holder had 14 points, while Obinna Oleka led the Sun Devils with 18 and five rebounds.
For Cal (10-4, 1-1), Bird had 16, and Sam Singer 10 off the bench. The Bears’ 11 made threes was one off their season high.
The Bears visit Pauley Pavilion Thursday for a date with one-loss UCLA, followed by a date with No. 25 USC. Both the Bruins and Trojans are 14-1 with both losses coming this last weekend at Oregon.
HURLEY’S BIG COLLEGIATE FINALE TRUMPED BY CAL AND KIDD: Arizona State coach Hurley probably had enough of Cal even before Sunday’s loss as he saw his college career at Duke end at the hands of Todd Bozeman’s Bears in March 1993 in a second round NCAA tournament game in Rosemont, IL.
Hurley was spectacular that night finishing with 32 points, nine assists and one turnover as he tried to rally his Blue Devils from a big, early deficit.
But Cal prevailed behind 28 points from Lamond Murray. Current NBA Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd, just a freshman matched against the two-time NCAA champion Hurley, had 11 points and 14 assists. And current Stanford coach Jerod Haase contributed 13 points on three made threes for Cal.
The Bears would see their NCAA run end in a Sweet 16 loss to Kansas and former USF coach Rex Walters.