By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY–The biggest mystery surrounding Cal basketball through seven games was the struggles of Justice Sueing, the team’s leading, returning scorer who hadn’t looked comfortable or been as productive as he was in his breakout, freshman campaign.
Under the bright lights of a tense, tight ballgame versus San Diego State on Saturday night, Sueing provided answers to the questions. The sophomore from Hawaii poured in a game-high 23 points, including a lead-changing 3-pointer with 1:43 remaining as the Bears forced their way past the Aztecs, 89-83.
The win followed Cal’s empty effort in a 19-point home loss to USF on Wednesday, and was every bit of the momentum-gathering, confidence-builder the team needed after a 2-5 start to the season. With rarely-used Grant Anticevich and Connor Vanover thrust into important roles, and point guard Paris Austin playing more efficiently, Sueing’s offensive breakout felt like Cal’s biggest development.
“I’ve been hesitating a little bit too much and not play with a free mind. I came into this game knowing what I was going to do, knowing how I was going to play it,” Sueing said.
Sueing shot 35 percent from the floor in the season’s first seven games (24 of 68), numbers more akin to getting benched, then leading an ascending club offensively. At times, Sueing’s shooting stroke looked disjointed, at other times, the 6’7″ forward barely registered as his less experienced teammates tried to find their offensive rhythm.
Either way, Sueing’s absence on the offensive end of the floor was a recipe for disaster as a young Cal squad grasped for scoring in all five of its losses. Then on Saturday, against a familiar non-conference opponent, the Bears battled for 35 minutes, only to find themselves trailing 76-68, their biggest deficit of the evening.
And that’s when all the growth and confidence emerged almost of nowhere.
First, Darius McNeill hit a three, narrowing SDSU’s lead to six. Paris Austin followed with a three, and Sueing’s three inside two minutes gave Cal the lead.
Freshman Matt Bradley, who came off the bench in a lineup change that allowed Vanover to start, hit a 3-pointer that broke an 83-83 tie with 32 seconds remaining.
In the final seconds, SDSU’s Devin Watson committed a turnover and the Aztecs’ leading scorer Mike Mitchell missed 3-pointer. Meanwhile, the Bears supplemented their four made threes with 7 of 8 from the free throw line in their final push.
“We were just trusting each other I think,” Sueing recounted of the final minutes. “Matt had a huge shot at the end and we all trust him. He’s one of the best 3-point shooters in the country. All of us just trusting each other, feeding off of each other.”