Tables turned: Cal in a zone as the Bears upset San Diego State on the road

San Diego State’s Trey Kell advances the ball with California’s Don Coleman in pursuit (photos courtesy of Ernie Anderson/SDSU)

By Morris Phillips

Yeah, the youthful Cal Bears are a struggling basketball team, but that doesn’t mean you can overlook them, or take short cuts in your preparation when playing them.

On Saturday afternoon, the San Diego State Aztecs found that to be the case–in Viejas Arena, one of the college basketball’s most advantageous homecourt environments. After the Aztecs overcame Cal’s second half, double digit-leads with a furious rally, they allowed the Bears to recover and score the last five points of the game, and escape with a 63-62 win.

Afterwards, the disappointment of the SDSU contingent was a profound as Cal’s elation.

“We obviously have work to do, every team in the country does, but I like my team and I like how hard they’re working,” SDSU coach Brian Dutcher explained. “They’re supposed to be disappointed over this game. I’m disappointed, but we have to move on and we have 12 days to get ready for a very good Gonzaga team on the 21st.”

Cal’s win ended a four-game losing streak to San Diego State that stretched back to December 2010 when sophomore Kawhi Leonard had an eye-popping game against the Bears at Haas Pavilion. A year ago, the Aztecs embarrassed the Bears in Sacramento, winning handily at Golden 1 Arena with Ivan Rabb and his two seven-foot teammates unable to stop SDSU’s relentless inside attack. With Cal coming off a 27-point loss to Central Arkansas, things weren’t expected to change in the Aztecs loud, home venue.

But they did, from the start, as coach Wyking Jones hatched a 2-3 zone scheme and a bigger lineup that gave San Diego State fits.

“The guys absolutely followed the game plan, Jones explained. “We wanted to slow things up a little bit. We just said to our guys if we play that 2-3 zone we’re going to make them shoot us out of it. Keep it tight. Try to limit penetration.”

The result? SDSU looked ill-prepared to attack Cal’s zone and missed 22 of a whopping 28 3-point attempts as they failed to get the ball into the paint. Cal took the lead early, led by five at the half, and increased that lead to 53-40 with 13:10 remaining.

To that point, the Bears had bucked many of their trends that labeled their early season a mixed bag with the sweetest treats pilfered. Using both big men together? After scraping lineups with Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee that were too slow in transition and not effective enough offensively, the pair saw considerable time against SDSU, mainly to keep tabs on Aztecs Malik Pope and Kameron Rooks. Defensive intensity? The Bears outrebounded SDSU and benefitted from 19 points off 14 turnovers committed by the Aztecs. Besides Pope (20 points), Jeremy Hemsley and Matt Mitchell (13 points each) Cal held the other seven Aztecs to see action in check. Freshman scoring? Starters Justice Sueing and Darius McNeill combined for 22 points. Sueing scored Cal’s first seven points of the second half as the Bears created a cushion.

But this is Cal, filled with youth and the accompanying mood swings in their play. Over the next 12 minutes, the Bears would add just five points and see SDSU surge.  A brief tussle under the basket between Pope and Coleman that resulted in matching technical fouls would energize the Viejas crowd, and the Bears’ double-digit lead would evaporate.

“I told them in the first timeout, when they spurted on us, that we have to have a level of toughness and grit about us,” Dutcher said. “The crowd will respond if you just play hard. You don’t have to make all the perfect plays, just go out and show them you’re playing hard and competing at a higher level. So we picked up our ball pressure, we got in the ball harder, we doubled some ball screens and it was a case of our defense getting us going offensively a little bit.”

With less than a minute remaining, and Cal trailing 62-58, Coleman scored on a layup and converted a three-point play.  Then with just seven seconds remaining, Juhwan Harris-Dyson would make a pair of free throws. Throw in defensive stops after each, and the Bears escaped with an improbable, and unlikely win.

“It just gives our guys a tremendous boost of confidence,” Jones said. “They should feel like they can compete with pretty much anybody.”

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