Bears stay “locked in,” grab critical win over Utah in double OT 77-75

February 3, 2017

Cal Bears, NCAA

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By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY–After seeing the score tied at 55 after regulation, and 75 in the final moments of double overtime–and ten other times on Thursday–the Cal Bears no doubt understood how evenly matched they were with their opponent, Utah in their 77-75 win.

But instead of getting caught up in how tense and tight the ballgame was, or fretting over a 14-point, first half lead that evaporated, or how big of a swing regarding their postseason hopes the outcome would hold, the Bears managed to focus in the game’s final possession, the one in which freshman Charlie Moore found senior Jabari Bird breaking backdoor for the game-winning slam dunk.

Ah, the beauty of familiarity–through countless repetitions and practices–on display in a game’s critical, final moments.  Call the convergence a coach’s dream, something coach Cuonzo Martin no doubt will refer to in the season’s final weeks.

“I think our guys stayed locked in, finished the game,” Martin said when asked if his team reacted better against Utah, then they did in narrow losses to Virginia and Arizona earlier in the season. “They know how to get stops when it’s time to get stops.  They know how to buckle down and do what they need to do to get stops, and make plays.”

If nothing else, Moore and Bird’s connection provided a fairly straightforward conclusion to what evolved into a complicated game of closely-matched opponents. At least in the eyes of Utah coach Larry Krystowiak it  did.

“It was all penetration,” Krystowiak said. “There was two seconds to go.  It was important that we stop the ball.  (Moore) made a great play. Yeah, we lost him on that play.”

“Once I saw the lane open up, and guys commit to (Moore), I just cut back door and he made a great play and found me,” Bird said of the play that left just two seconds on the clock.

Ironically, it was Moore and Bird who combined for the game’s winning basket.  The freshman struggled with his shooting throughout Pac-12 play while learning how to combat bigger defenders, all keyed up to stop him after word of Moore’s 38-point game against Cal Irvine became widespread knowledge.  The 5’11 guard went on to lead Cal in scoring in four, subsequent non-conference games, but he hasn’t done it since over the first ten Pac-12 contests.

Meanwhile, Bird has been unstoppable, a guy who opened the season unable to play due to injury, and now has regained all of his capabilities. The 6’6″ senior has scored in double figures in ten of the previous 12 games culminating with his career-best 26 on Thursday.

If anything specific could keep this Cal Bears’ team from the NCAA tournament it would be lack of offense, and that seems less likely with Bird and Moore simultaneously operating at a high level.  Moore contributed 17 points, seven assists against the Utes, and drew high praise from Martin for his patience, and trusting his playmaking on the game’s final play.  While Moore has scored in double figures in four of the five, most recent games, it’s the emergence of his overall game that’s drawn notice.

With eight regular season games remaining, the Bears (16-6, 7-3) are tied for third with UCLA, behind conference leaders Oregon and Arizona who meet this weekend in Eugene.  Staying in the top four is paramount not only for favorable seeding in the conference tournament in Las Vegas, but also for the likelihood the NCAA committee would invite at least four Pac-12 teams to March Madness.

Cal has the jump on USC and Utah in that regard with wins over both, if not a win over any of the conference leaders, which would be the greater deal changer.   Winning the games they’re supposed to win also has a great cache, and that process continues Sunday afternoon when Cal and Colorado draw the assignment as the televised lead-in to the Super Bowl.

On Thursday,  the Buffs outlasted Stanford, 81-74 at Maples Pavilion,  just their third Pac-12 victory thus far.

 

 

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