By Morris Phillips
The Cal Bears found themselves surrounded by basketball royalty on Thursday: in Madison Square Garden, on national television, facing No. 1 Duke and legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But like Cinderella at the ball, it wasn’t long before the Bears found their inclusion in the proceedings brought into question.
After playing the Blue Devils to a draw for the game’s first eight minutes, Duke quickly established control, rolling to a 40-21 halftime lead on their way to a 87-52 victory in the 2K Empire Classic semifinal matchup. The Blue Devils will face Georgetown in the tournament’s championship on Friday night, while Cal will face Texas in the consolation game.
Vernon Carey scored 21 of his game-best 31 points in the first half to lead Duke, as the super frosh showed that he’s just another in a long line of youthful, but talented players to come through the Duke program.
“He’s making passes, he can put the ball on the floor. He’s playing through contact, has a good touch,” Krzyzewski said of Carey.
With the Blue Devils leading 15-11, Carey spun baseline on Cal’s Andre Kelly, took a bump, and flipped the ball in the basket with his left hand with his body almost completely under the basket. Needless to say, Carey’s gem of a basket isn’t something the Bears see everyday at practice back at Haas Pavilion.
“This is a great test for us to learn what the best looks like,” coach Mark Fox said. “They have a great team, and a very complete team.”
The Bears entered the contest with a 4-0 record–albeit against lesser competition–and a world of confidence. Fox had his team in a zone defense to start, and that seemed to give Duke some pause early. But it wasn’t long before they figured it out, and attacked the middle of the Cal defense with great success.
“Coach told us to get the ball in the middle and it would open everything up,” Carey said.
On the other end of the floor, the Bears were in trouble from the start, trying to execute their offense against Duke’s trapping defenses and quickness at every position. The numbers bore out the Pac-12 challenger’s frustration: despite trailing for the game’s final 30 minutes, Cal managed to attempt just 10 3-pointers, making four. More often than not, they dealt with Duke’s quick hands, shot blocking and rebounding.
The numbers bore out Cal’s frustration. Their rebounds (29) were a season-low, as were the 21 points they scored in the first half. Starting center Lars Thiemann fouled out in just 11 minutes of action, as the Bears committed 27 fouls, a season-high.
Eleven players got into the scoring column for Cal, but none scored in double figures. The Bears were led by Kareem South and D.J. Thorpe with eight points each.