By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY — After a pair of last place finishes in the Pac-12, a coaching change, and a great deal of personnel upheaval, the Cal Bears looked like a breath of fresh air in dispatching Pepperdine 87-71 in their season opener.
Coach Mark Fox, how about that improvement from last year’s 8-23 nightmare?
“I don’t know what happened last year,” Fox said emphatically. “We won’t even look at it.”
If anything can be learned at this early stage about Fox, who coached previously at Nevada and Georgia, he’s exceedingly positive while being extremely demanding. So far, 17 players, none of them new to the program–or old–according to Fox, have bought in.
Simply, the Bears are an empty slate, neither doomed to their recent past or promised to be improved. So far, improvement appears to be the path based on their come-from-behind win against the Waves.
Matt Bradley scored 25 points, and Paris Austin came up with 14 points, three assists keying a 52-point second half that carried the Bears after they trailed Pepperdine 37-35 at the half.
Andre Kelly, the beneficiary of some nifty passes from Austin, and newcomer Kareem South were Cal’s two other double-digit scorers, coming up with 16 points and 14 points respectively.
The Bears trailed by as many as seven points in the first half, and were still behind 49-46 with 14:35 remaining when Pepperdine went scoreless for five minutes and Cal took control. Bradley and Austin each scored six points in a 17-0 run that put the Bears up 63-49 with 10:05 remaining. The Waves banked on their 3-point shooting and lost, missing 19 of their final 25 attempts from distance.
Bradley experienced foul trouble in the opening 20 minutes and sat for a long stretch. But the second half was all his. The sophomore finished 8 for 11 from the field and made 5 of his 7 attempts from distance.
“I said, `Now you’re not in foul trouble. You can go and be aggressive and just play like you’ve practiced,'” Fox said of his halftime directive to Bradley. “And to his credit he did just that.”
“When I came back in the second half it was second nature,” Bradley said. “I wasn’t really thinking much, I was just playing and felt really good.”
If the Bears have a focal point offensively, it undoubtedly would be the burly Bradley. The 6’4″ guard has started his Cal career by making 55 of 113 3-point attempts. On Tuesday, Bradley matched his career-best with five made threes.
Austin came off the bench and repeatedly burned the Waves with his dribble penetration and ability to finish. Remarkably, Austin registered just three assists even as it seemed had much more with his composed approach and pinpoint passing.
Colbey Ross led the Waves with 19 points, seven assists, but 17 of those came before halftime. Sophomore Kessler Edwards paced Pepperdine in the second half, scoring 15 of his 18 points after the break.
The Bears appear to be a much deeper and more balanced team than they were in 2018-19 as nine players saw action Tuesday. They also expect to get big contributions from forward Kuany Kuany and big guard Juhwan Harris-Dyson, neither of whom played against Pepperdine. Fox hinted that the pair could return from injury rather soon with the Bears next scheduled to host UNLV on November 12.