By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — It’s never too late to reinvent yourselves. In fact, doing so prior to the Pac-12 tournament might be a stroke of genius.
The Cal Bears made it two straight wins–after 16 losses–by putting the clamps on Washington State Saturday at Haas Pavilion, 76-69. The resurgent Bears now have the opportunity to enter the conference tournament on a roll, pending their regular season-ending clash at Stanford on Thursday.
“We’re going to keep it rolling,” said Justice Sueing, one of four Cal starters to score in double figures. “We got a lot of momentum, and we’re going to continue to stick together no matter what. Like I said, we’ve been through a rough patch, we finally got over it as Darius said. We’re going to keep moving and see where it can take us.”
During the losing streak, Cal’s defense was never credible enough for 40 minutes to win at the Pac-12 level. On Thursday, when they pulled the major upset of conference-leading Washington, the Bears shot their way to victory with 51 percent shooting from the floor. But on Saturday, the Bears were credible at both ends with balanced scoring offensively while forcing the Cougars into a season-high 20 turnovers defensively.
“It felt like any time that they made a run or a got it within under 10 to make us a little nervous, it felt like we made a defensive play,” coach Wyking Jones said. “Us having 13 steals and forcing 20 turnovers is what saved us tonight. It’s what got us the win. Thirty points off the turnovers was the key tonight.”
While the turnovers made the game seem ragged for stretches, it all transpired with the Bears leading, and, at least at key points, them showing patience while methodically wearing down the visitors. When the jump shots weren’t falling, the Bears got to the basket where the Cougars’ defense was especially vulnerable.
Darius McNeill led Cal in that regard with a team-best 17 points, and only three of those from beyond the arc. Instead, McNeill got to the basket where WSU was without key contributors Carter Skaggs, Viont’e Daniels and Jeff Pollard, all scratched due to concussion protocol. The WSU defens was especially vulnerable early as the Bears built their first double-digit lead with 7:19 remaining before halftime.
“When I saw my first 3 wasn’t falling I decided to get to the rim and do whatever I can to help the team win,” McNeill said. “That’s what I was doing.”
Still McNeill could be pigeonholed. With WSU on a run, the shooting guard came up with a big three with 5:46 remaining that kept Cal in control, leading 65-56.
Paris Austin and Connor Vanover were Cal’s other starters to score in double figures. Matt Bradley and Juwan Harris-Dyson had nine each, and both were instrumental in slowing Robert Franks, WSU’s top scorer. Frank’s finished with 18 points but missed nine of his 15 shots.
The Bears travel to Palo Alto for the regular-season finale on Thursday at 8 pm.