By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — Down nine points with less than eight minutes remaining, the Cal Bears needed a few elements in their game on Tuesday against UNLV.
Composure. Togetherness. Defense.
“I said the first team that starts playing defense is going to win,” California coach Mark Fox said. “I didn’t think either team particularly was great defensively in the first half. But in the second half, both teams decided to start playing defense so I think what the difference in the game was, was the turnovers. In the second half, they had 12, we had five. I thought that was really what was the deciding factor. We just kept battling, we just kept playing hard and found a way to win.”
“I think we just picked it up,” said guard Kareem South, one of four Bears in double figures with 14 points. “When it was the moment of truth, we locked it in and got stops.”
Through 30 minutes, the meeting of Rebels and Bears couldn’t have been any more even. UNLV led by two at the half (40-38) and there were 20 lead changes in the game. The teams even appeared similar in dimensions: both teams relied heavily on their guards attacking the paint against smallish, front lines.
But the game turned in the final minutes for the home team. The Bears created offense from their defense, and rode a 16-2 run spanning the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime for a 79-75 victory. After consecutive 20-loss seasons, and a coaching change, Cal is 2-0.
Donnie Tillman led UNLV with 17 points, Elijah Mitrou-Long added 16, but the Rebels couldn’t maintain their 59 percent shooting from the first half. The turnovers and missed shots down the stretch may have partially been the product of fatigue and the Rebels’ lack of depth. Four of their five starters played more than 40 minutes, Mitrou-Long and reserve Nick Blair fouled out.
“In the second half, our defense kicked in but then we had too many turnovers,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We have talked a lot about it–for us to be successful we need to do those things night in and night out.”
Matt Bradley led Cal with 23 points after he scored 25 in the opener against Pepperdine. Joel Brown added 12, and Paris Austin 10 points as the Bears relied heavily on dribble penetration, shooting 21 for 36 inside the 3-point arc.
Juhwan Harris-Dyson made his season debut playing 20 minutes, contributing five points and two rebounds. His defense and veteran presence will be critical for a young team that has so little veteran experience.
The Bears next play California Baptist Friday night in the opener of the 2K Empire Classic, a series of games against scheduled opponents that will see Cal play four games in eight days, including a matchup with Duke in Madison Square Garden in New York on November 21.