Arizona Uber Alles: No. 3 Wildcats rude guests in runaway, 96-71 win

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Cal fans showed up, and Coach Mark Fox left early. Talk about both being out of character.

No. 3 Arizona has a way of leaving opponents, and others, twisted. The Wildcats are that good, that devastating, reference their wire-to-wire, 96-71 win on Sunday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.

“If you look at the completeness of their team with multiple bigs, terrific shooting, an outstanding wing, depth, they are playing like the best team,” Fox admitted. “Their margins of victory.. like today was obviously big, but that’s what it’s been. They’ve been dominant.”

Arizona (16-1,6-0) hit the gas so quickly, skid marks could be seen near the Haas entry ways. They led 17-3, 34-16 and 46-26 a minute after Fox lost his composure, drawing a second technical and an ejection. Cal’s Jordan Shepherd missed his first seven shots, and the Bears misfired on five attempts from distance, part of 7 for 30 shooting to start that left them in a big hole.

“It’s what you hope for on the road, that you come out and from start to finish your team is solid and they execute the plan,” first-year Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said. “We did a really good job of dictating what they were doing on the offensive end, and then on our end of the floor getting into our movement.”

Talent? The Wildcats have it abundance. Their top eight scorers–with Bennedict Mathurin (17.3 ppg) leading, and Pelle Larsson (6.4) trailing–are all capable of big scoring nights, when needed, on demand. Against Cal, Mathurin struggled (3 of 9 from the floor) as Christian Koloko took over the paint (19 points, 13 rebounds) in the absence of 6′ 11″ Azoulas Tubelis, Arizona’s second leading scorer. Larsson got a turn in the starting lineup and was impressive on both ends. He finished with nine points and two assists in 21 minutes.

Cal’s shrewd plan to get Shepherd going from the perimeter first to then provide space for Andre Kelly and opportunities for Grant Anticevich was immediately foiled. Arizona’s length at the guard spots and quick feet defensively bothered Cal like 16 Wildcats opponents were bothered before.

With assistant Chris Harriman directing the club, the Bears benefitted from Arizona’s careless ball handling to open the second half, but the visitors’ transition game kicked in and Cal trailed 66-40 with 12:56 remaining.

Shepherd led Cal (9-10, 2-6) with 21 points, rebounding from his scoreless start. Kelly and Makale Foreman added eight points each.

The Bears have dropped five straight, three straight at home, with three, tough road games to follow. The Bears have yet to win a road game this season, losing all four to date.

UCLA looms as Cal’s next opponent on Thursday, the Bears’ opportunity to display all the wisdom gleaned from a 60-52 loss on January 8 in Berkeley. The problem is the No. 9 Bruins aren’t coming off a three-week break due to COVID this time, and are unlikely to start sluggishly playing at home.

WE STAYED. COACH YOU HAVE TO STAY TOO: All season, coach Mark Fox has wanted to combine his team’s hustle and flow with an intimidating, loud Haas Pavilion atmosphere. COVID has disrupted his plans, from the canceled and rescheduled games to the stringent vaccination requirements for fans in the building.

Sunday’s gathering of 7,582 represented a breakthrough for attendance this season, despite the hastily arranged gametime layered on top of some pretty, compelling nationally-televised NFL games. But when the game turned lopsided soon after it began, the fans never got a chance to make their presence felt.

Fox had his hand on the proceedings, but he let the referees get involved contrary to the coach’s better judgment.

“My frustration wasn’t just about tonight. My frustration was (about) some things that built up to it,” he said. “The official decided, like in third grade, to instigate a staring contest and, like in third grade, I took the bait and got my second technical and put our team in a tough spot.”

Fox picked up his initial technical two minutes before the second. Afterwards, he framed his actions as positive, saying “if I have to lead the fight, sign me up.”

Others might say his actions weren’t a sign of leadership. Regardless of how his actions were perceived, he’s got two bigger issues, only one that enhances his future in Berkeley: he’s maintained team unity and focus under the most trying of circumstances, but Fox has not reached the baseline for recruiting in a conference driven by talent as much as exemplary coaching.

Welcomed In, Then Ushered Out: Kraken seize Sharks first trip to Seattle, win 3-2

By Morris Phillips

SEATTLE–In the NHL, physical confrontations win games. They create lingering animosity, spark rivalries and snap losing spells too.

Mark Giordano knows better than anyone. The 38-year old played 949 games in a Flames sweater, followed by a mere 33 games with expansion Seattle, but enough hockey to provide him the savvy to sense an opening by dropping the gloves with 20-year old Adam Raska of the Sharks.

Giordano’s instincts, and fists highlighted his well-rounded evening on the ice as the Kraken rallied to defeat the Sharks 3-2 in San Jose’s first NHL visit to Seattle.

The Sharks failed to leapfrog the Kings and Ducks in tightly-bunched Pacific Division standings while the Kraken won in regulation for the first time in a month ruptured by a pair of COVID interruptions that forced the team into seven game cancelations.

“The consistency in our game wasn’t there early,” Kraken coach Dave Hakstol said. “I give our guys credit for stepping up in the second and third period and finding a way to get it done.”

The Sharks needed just 38 seconds to introduce themselves to the Climate Pledge Arena crowd with Tomas Hertl’s goal assisted by Alexander Barabanov. The goal was Hertl’s team-leading 21st, and Barabanov contributed on his first shift after missing three games due to COVID protocols.

The first period was an illustration of the host’s struggles, which saw them drop nine straight before beating the Blackhawks on Monday. Talented and experienced in the realm of league expansion teams, the Kraken have seen their developing chemistry suffer under the weight of the two, inactive periods due to the virus. In the first 24 minutes Thursday, the Kraken gave the puck away five times and afforded the Sharks precious, additional scoring opportunities.

But all that disjointed play ended when Mason Appleton maintained control despite taking a big hit against the wall, then shuttled the puck to an open Carson Soucy, who delivered the Kraken’s first goal from inside the face-off circle.

Soucy’s goal enlivened the crowd, and a subsequent goal that was waved off for offsides upon video review, didn’t see that momentum to dissipate. Again Soucy stepped up, battling his way through traffic for a second goal four minutes after the first, putting the Kraken up, 2-1.

Two penalties against the Sharks followed that for seven seconds gave Seattle a 5 on 3 advantage. Both were killed, but San Jose’s biggest threats, Timo Meier and Hertl missed ice time as the penalty killers worked. The momentum swung to the Kraken and their crowd.

“After the first, we stopped playing,” Hertl said. “They were all over us, they managed the game better and we couldn’t find a way. It’s a tough loss because everybody knows what is coming–the last five games before the break.”

Giordano was already having a big night with an assist and some gritty defensive stops. When Raska drew a cross checking penalty from Soucy, the 6’1″ Giordano got in Raska’s face accusing him of being a bit of an actor. The gloves dropped, the punches flew and the crowd howled. Both players were assessed fighting majors.

For Raska, in just his fourth NHL game, it was a lesson that left him overwhelmed. For Giordano, experiencing his first fighting major in three years was a cerebral act and in some ways a game decider.

Philipp Grubauer, the Kraken’s goaltender countered a very disappointing month with a pair of saves on Hertl, one each on Brett Burns and Barbarov, as well as corraling Meier’s breakaway opportunity earlier in the period. He finished with 22 saves.

The Sharks had chances. Along with the giveaways they were afforded, they went 1 of 6 on the power play, and saw Seattle’s Riley Sheahan win 12 of his 17 faceoffs, most of those in special team situations.

Calle Jarnkrok put the Kraken up 3-1 in the third with Giordano picking up his second assist.

The Kraken’s pair of wins in their first two encounters with San Jose puts them in the company of the 1998 Predators and 2017 Golden Knights as the only expansion teams to defeat the Sharks consecutively.

Meier kept up his torrid goal scoring streak by cashing in a power play opportunity in the third that trimmed the Sharks deficit to 3-2. Despite another power play opportunity in the game’s final two minutes, the Sharks were denied.

Adin Hill had 16 saves for the Sharks as he got the starting assignment in place of James Reimer. Hill avoided disaster in the third period when he found himself out of the crease with the Kraken on the attack, but he gave his team a chance. Still, the loss was Hill’s 12th, the most he’s had in any of his five NHL seasons.

The Sharks next skate on Saturday at home in a difficult match-up with Steven Stamkos and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are atop the Atlantic Division along with the Florida Panthers.

SHARKS’ GOAL SCORING CONUNDRUM: The Sharks aren’t particularly adept at scoring goals, ranking 22nd in the NHL with 2.76 goals per game. However, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl are tied for seventh in individual goal scoring with 21 each. The issue? What if either misses extended time in the season’s second half, which for the Sharks, begins on Saturday with a home date with the Lightning? The burden for goal scoring falls upon Logan Couture and Brent Burns, and neither is suited to be a front line sniper.

Could the team be in the market for another goal scorer in the trade market? Most likely, yes.


Everything’s Different, Geno’s the Same: 37 years later, Connecticut’s Auriemma still pursuing titles

By Morris Phillips

EUGENE, OR–Under these relentless circumstances, and unprecedented personnel issues, only one coach could pull an NCAA title out of his hat.

One. Geno Auriemma, the iconic Connecticut coach, unyielding, principled and funny as ever, now in his 37th year at Storrs.

But first Auriemma needs January to end, and maybe February too. In front of a respectful, but blood thirsty crowd of 9,439, and a national television audience, Auriemma’s Huskies got embarrassed, losing 72-59 at Oregon after they trailed by as many as 24. Missing a pair of All-Americans, Christyn Williams and Paige Bueckers, and a third, transcendent recruit that might grow to become one of the 10 best players ever to play UConn, Azzi Fudd, the Huskies were shorthanded, and their social media star power severely paired.

“It’s another unfortunate blow to an already challenging season and especially when I thought Christyn’s game was playing at a real high level and she had put together a bunch of really good games,” Auriemma said. “It’s another punch in the gut for our team, for everybody.”

Fudd and Bueckers, in a lengthy leg brace, were in attendance and got some playful shots up in the pre-game warm-ups. Williams was not. Expected to play, she was effectively banished when her latest tests landed her in COVID protocols and on a plane alone back to Connecticut. The announcement was a made a mere four hours before tip.

The resurgent Ducks took full advantage, adding a second win over a Top 10 opponent in three days, after they outlasted No. 6 Arizona on Saturday. Connecticut was No. 9, but that number was a nod to them not losing–or winning–a game for weeks.

During the game, Auriemma combined stoicism with concern, and kept teaching. Timeouts were calm, and the slew of missed shots in the first half drew a poker face. Never let them see you sweat, and bring the humor post-game in support.

“It’s been [subpar] coaching,” Auriemma said. “By far the worst it’s ever been and it shows up. It shows up. … I don’t know what language to speak to get my point across. My communication skills are not very good anymore.”

“Our guard play is not good. Plain and simple. I guess that’s something that we’re not used to here in Connecticut. But right now our guard play is not good. And it’s been a real struggle to get some of these guys to understand how to take care of the ball, how to make better decisions.”

Auriemma’s bit about Bueckers being from Hopkins, MN or John Hopkins University got sprinkled in as well, a nod to the star’s ability to concisely describe her rehabilitation as if she were her own doctor.

No matter the prognosis, or the source, Geno the comedian’s just left pleading.

“I just want her back!” he laughed.

“Our guards didn’t play well. Plain and simple and you couldn’t take them out and put somebody else in to get them a breather. Again the game is won or lost by your guards and last year we had the best guard in the country and it was easy to win games. This year we don’t and it’s hard to win games and sometimes basketball is not that complicated.”

Auriemma’s won 11 NCAA titles in a 25-year stretch that represents the breadth and brilliance of his coaching career. The other 12 seasons he’s spent in Storrs, Connecticut weren’t bad. They just fell short of transcendence, just like this season-to-date.

On Monday afternoon, the coach that’s won 111 consecutive games, couldn’t coax 111 successful dribbles out of his club. One shot hit the side of the backboard, another barely scrapped the rim, and another was airball and drew jeers. In a lopsided, second quarter local hero back home Evina Westbrook (Salem, OR) received a genuine and lengthy salute from the crowd. But the senior slumped as well, finishing 3 of 10 with three turnovers.

Missed shots? The Huskies had seven from beyond the arc before Westbrook connected in the first minute of the third quarter. They finished 3 for 18.

Turnovers? Nineteen, and Auriemma gave all 19 a life of their own after the game.

“We stopped scoring, turned the ball over, they scored. Now we’re coming down and throwing the ball away and missing shots. That’s a really really bad combination… really bad,” he said. “Nineteen times we crossed half court and didn’t get a shot at the basket. I don’t know how you beat really good teams doing that.”

“We can’t have that happen, especially in big games like this,” said Olivia Nelson-Udoda. “When things aren’t going well, just pushing through that wall. I think that’s our biggest struggle right now as a team.”

Rocket Blast Of Reality: Kings start slow, squander opportunity in 118-112 loss to Houston

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–The NBA’s done its part, providing a postseason format tailored for the Kings’ shortcomings. Now the suffering ballclub has to fall in line, and provide the needed buckets and hard-earned, defensive stops to gain a spot.

Kings are you ready?

Well, not yet.

Christian Wood and Kevin Porter Jr. each scored 23 points, and the Rockets held on for a 118-112 win over the Kings at Golden 1 Center. The Kings fell 10 games below .500 with the loss and, for now, relinquished the coveted 10th spot in the Western Conference to the Spurs.

Buddy Hield led the Kings with 27 points in 30 minutes off the bench, and five others scored in double figures, but the hosts were doomed by a ridiculously poor start in which they trailed 13-0 and 21-5 six minutes in.

Struggling teams blow leads, that’s what they do, and the youthful Rockets followed suit. Their shooting, which topped 65 percent early, dipped to 48 percent at the half. The Kings got to the hoop and kept visiting to lead 60-55 at the half, and maintained a 88-85 advantage after three. Interim coach Alvin Gentry liked his team’s fight, but couldn’t ignore the residual effects of the lackluster start.

“They kept enough of a lead that it puts a lot of pressure on you to score,” Gentry said. “We created some really good shots. It’s just a matter of us knocking them down.”

The disjointed ballgame played in front of empty seats and fans wearing 49ers’ jerseys didn’t gain intensity until leading scorer De’Aaron Fox was ejected with 8:14 remaining. A video review revealed his Flagrant 2 foul for slappin at the ball as Houston’s Garrison Mathews attempted to cruise in for a layup. While Fox could legitimately claim he made a basketball play, Mathews fell awkwardly, landing on his hip with his legs taken from beneath him. Fox departed with 14 points, four rebounds and the Kings suddenly trailing by five.

Tyrese Haliburton was unavailable after it was announced earlier on Sunday that he entered COVID protocols, but the Kings got Richaun Holmes and Damian Jones back after protocols forced both into isolation and physical inactivity for a week. Marvin Bagley III couldn’t go due to shoulder soreness.

The Rockets remain last in the Western Conference but they’ve won three of their last four away from Houston’s Toyota Center. They opened the season with a win at Minneapolis, then lost 10 straight road games. Coach Steven Silas prefers what he sees now: an emerging team with youth, and time on it’s side.

“We’re not a playoff team yet but when we are this is what it’s going to look like,” Silas said. “We’re trying to learn as many lessons as we can. I was proud of them for that.”

The Kings host the Pistons on Wednesday, giving them three, consecutive home games against two of the NBA’s worst teams, but there’s no sweep to show for their scheduling luck.

Rough Road: Cal comes up short after halftime again, loses 65-57 at WSU

By Morris Phillips

The road trip that causes the most headaches in the Pac-12 starts in Seattle on a Thursday and leaves you feeling unsettled in Pullman, Washington on Saturday afternoon.

Bad weather, rough flight, slick roads and a quirky opponent in a mostly empty arena throw you off balance, and likely the Washington Huskies shook your confidence as well. Conference ballclubs aren’t at their best after going through the Northwest curveball machine.

The Bears were the latest testees who survived the first half, but finally slipped late in the second, losing 65-57 to Washington State. Cal was swept for the second weekend in a row and had issues trying to score in all four losses. On Saturday, coach Mark Fox was disappointed with the team’s rebounding, and not limiting the Cougars’ opportunities.

“I think it’s the third game in a row on the road where we had the lead at the half and we talked about trying to close it and finish it, and we just didn’t defensive rebound,” Cal coach Mark Fox said. “We forced some misses, we gave up a rebound on free throw that cost us three.”

The back breaking sequence came with 2:52 and WSU’s Michael Flowers at the foul line shooting one-and-one. Flowers missed the first one but WSU rebounded and swung the ball to Flowers for an open three that he buried, extending the lead to five.

“We just didn’t do the right things to close the game in the second half,” Fox said.

Cal scored just 10 points after Andre Kelly got them even at 47 with 9:19 remaining. Flowers contributed 11 of his 13 points in the second half, and Andrej Jakimovski paced the Cougars with 18 points.

In seven of Cal’s nine losses–and three of the last four games–they’ve scored 60 points or fewer.

Cal starting guard Joel Brown attempted to fly from the East Bay to Pullman on Saturday morning after he cleared COVID restrictions that left him home isolation for seven days. Brown arrived after the game started and played just one minute when it became apparent he couldn’t ramp it up after a week without physical activity or basketball.

“You just take a roll of the dice and say, ‘Is it going to be like he can just step in here and we keep rolling?'” Fox said. “And you can tell he wasn’t ready and out of synch and understandably so.”

Shepherd led Cal with 17 points, Kelly had 12 and a season-best 14 rebounds.

The Bears return home to Haas Pavilion to face No. 6 Arizona on January 23 at noon.

Huskies Find Clear Sledding: Washington’s big run carries them past Cal, 64-55

By Morris Phillips

No, Alaska Airlines Arena wasn’t the place to find a pair of polished products on Wednesday night, but for either Washington or Cal, making a noticeable step in that direction was a reasonable goal.

Put together 40 minutes of cohesive basketball, find bursts of offense from a defensive-minded group, and beat a vulnerable opponent on the road?

Apparently, the Bears aren’t quite ready to do that just yet.

Washington rode a late, 15-0 run, largely fueled by referee whistles that didn’t favor Cal, to a 64-55 win, proving the hosts are closer to competency within the challenging Pac-12 landscape.

“Our defense wasn’t as good,” coach Mark Fox said of the decisive second half that saw Cal outscored 37-21. “We turned the ball over another eight times in the second half. And we couldn’t score.”

The Bears didn’t start well either. They missed eight of their first 12 shots, and committed seven turnovers in the first 12 minutes. The Huskies better navigated the early minutes with a balanced attack that only needed two points from leading scorer Terrell Brown Jr. A steal and breakaway dunk from Daejon Davis put UW up 21-13 at the 8:09 mark.

Cal was without starting point guard Joel Brown who was not with the team, and left back in Berkeley with an undisclosed illness. Jarred Hyder started in Brown’s place. Sparkplug Sam Alajiki returned after missing the previous, two games, and Kuany Kuany returned to the starting lineup after playing in reserve against UCLA. Fox called Kuany’s one-game demotion a teaching moment.

Aided by reserves Alajiki, Jared Celestine and Lars Thiemann, the Bears found their groove in the final minutes of the half. A 10-1 run gave them the lead, and they didn’t stop there. The visitors built a seven-point, halftime lead, and briefly led by nine to open the second half.

At that point Brown turned it up a notch, and brought the crowd’s energy with him. The Seattle native responded with 18 of his 21 points after the break, apparently the result of his coaches and teammates getting him in the right frame of mind during earlier timeouts.

“Everybody kept giving me confidence,” Brown said. “Coach Hop told me to play basketball. They’re going to junk it up, but you can junk it up too and find different areas to attack. It was just me playing free.”

Cal clung to a lead until eight minutes remained, but the 15-0 run wiped them out, leaving them in a 62-51 disadvantage with 3:37 left. Within the run, Kuany drew a flagrant foul call for having his arms horizontal, not vertical, after securing a rebound, but contacting P.J. Fuller’s face trying to avoid being stripped. That led to a pair of made free throws, and possession for Washington. They maxed that with Brown’s flashy spin and jumpshot that left Kuany flailing and the crowd howling with pleasure.

“His feet kind of just left him and I’m watching the ball go up in the air and I see it rolling around and I’m like, ‘that’s going in.'” Davis said of Brown and Kuany’s viral moment.

The Bears managed just one more made basket in the final minutes–from Shepherd with 16 seconds left–and never really made noise. The ending seemed surreal because the Bears disappeared so completely.

Cal attempted just five free throws, a season low, and leading scorer Andre Kelly took seven shots and was limited to four points.

“There were some guys in uncomfortable positions,” Fox said. “That’s the hand we’re dealt right now. We’re going to have to figure out how to play without a couple guys.”

Cal concludes their Northwest swing in Pullman against a talented, high-scoring Washington State team on Saturday at 1:00pm.

Queeta Provides A Boost: Rookie impresses, but Kings suffer heartbreaking 109-108 loss to Cleveland

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–The Kings’ inconsistencies are so far reaching, they intersect with everything the faltering club touches. In this case, the first NBA basket for rookie Neemias Queta was muddied by a dubious footnote.

Queta, the rookie of Portugese decent, who was a standout center for Utah State, was rushed into duty with the Kings missing Richaun Holmes and Damian Jones (COVID protocols) along with Tristan Thompson, a late scratch with a quad issue. That left the Kings with starter Alex Len and an anxious Queta to combat the Cleveland Cavaliers’ imposing front line.

Just 30 seconds after Queta’s first quarter appearance, his nifty, jump hook in the lane gave him his initial points in the NBA. But six seconds later while the Kings’ defense took a pause, the Cavaliers’ Cedi Osman cruised in for an uncontested layup at the other end.

Monday’s fourth quarter was a mixed bag as well with Cleveland riding a 20-5 run to seize control and lead by double-digits only to see the Kings answer with a 9-0 run but come up short when De’Aaron Fox’s shot in the lane was a little long. That conclusion saddled Sacramento with a painful 109-108 loss at Golden 1 Center.

The Kings’ fifth consecutive loss came one night after the team was embarrassed in Portland by the Blazers, who were without their dynamic Lillard/McCollum backcourt. Against the Cavs, the Kings battled, only to come up short at the final horn.

Their biggest issue Monday? A lethargic start in which they missed eight of their first 10 shots and dug themselves a hole they ultimately couldn’t climb out of. But after an uninspiring start–and that issue of getting back on defense after a made basket–the embattled club played hard, and hit difficult shots.

Yes, the inconsistencies. But this time, interim coach Alvin Gentry generally seemed pleased.

“We did all we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win. We just couldn’t quite get over the hump,” Gentry said. “If you tell me that I could get De’Aaron Fox a foul-line jumpshot to win the game, I’ll take that. If we play that way night in and night out, we’ll change the direction of our team.”

The Cavaliers–also on a back-to-back–aren’t inconsistent at all. In fact, as one the league’s hottest teams, they’ve ruled the paint against all their opponents for better than a month. They were the unfortunate opponent for Golden State’s Klay Thompson’s return on Sunday, scoring a season-low 82 points. But the Kings’ porous defense immediately had Cleveland back on track; they scored their first 17 points on Monday in the paint.

Then Kevin Love got hot, pouring in 14 of his 19 points in the first half. The Kings appeared whipped at the break, trailing by 13, and not doing enough to inspire the smallest home gathering of the season.

“We were rebounding the ball, protecting the paint, doing everything that made us a good team, said Jarrett Allen, who finished with 18 points, 17 rebounds for the Cavs. “It was a huge step in the right direction.”

The Kings made it interesting in the second half by hitting 12 of their 14 3-pointers along with some blue collar work on the glass that would yield 15 offensive rebounds. The Cavs did their part in aiding the home team with 17 turnovers.

With Fox clearly laboring, likely due to a shoulder issue he’s battled, the Kings got scoring from Tyrese Haliburton and Buddy Hield. Haliburton’s three with 7:51 remaining extended the Kings only lead of significance to 94-89.

But the ensuing Cleveland run sealed it. Laurie Markkanen’s three with 2:34 remaining put the Cavs up 109-99.

Haliburton led the Kings with 21 points, 8 assists. Hield contributed 19 points while connecting of five of his eight 3-point attempts. Four other Kings scored in double figures, and Queta added 11 points, five rebounds in a career-high 24 minutes.

The Kings continue their five-game home stand on Wednesday when the Lakers visit, this time likely with the streaking LeBron James in tow. James has scored at least 30 points in 10 of his previous 11 games, with the exception being a 26-point, 7-rebound effort in a 108-103 win over Minnesota.

No Margin For Error: No. 5 UCLA too stingy for Cal’s tastes, Bears fall 60-52

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Coach Mark Fox stalked the sidelines, pestered the refs, incited the Haas Pavilion crowd, and as always, had the full attention of his team, but in the end, Fox had to tip his cap.

Visiting UCLA just brought too much to the table.

In a defensive struggle, the No. 5 Bruins simply were too stingy, and wore Cal down in their 60-52 victory.

“There’s no shame in laying it out there against the best teams and falling short. It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure,” Fox said. “We failed today, but these kids competed in a way that I was really pleased with.”

The Bears had success defensively, limiting UCLA to 60 points and a horrible night shooting from three (4 for 18), but in the game’s waning moments Cal’s resolve lessened and a pair of Bruins were left wide open to hit back-breaking, 3-pointers. Johnny Juzang’s three put UCLA up 55-43 with 3:28 remaining.

And how did Cal’s big effort defensively come to such an unsightly finish? Probably the result of climbing uphill all night, trailing for the game’s final 23 minutes, and realizing UCLA’s defense, which forced 15 turnovers, wasn’t going to relent.

“We’ve got to stop other teams from scoring,” UCLA’s Cody Riley said. “When we come out, we’re not always going to make shots. We can’t rely on making shots. It’s the defensive side where we win the ballgame.”

Riley’s presence in the paint was a welcome sight for his teammates, who fashioned an unlikely trip to the Final Four last spring without him due to injuries. With him, Cal was made to suffer as two of their top three scorers, Grant Anticevich and Jordan Shepherd, were harassed into horrible shooting nights. The attention paid to Anticevich and Shepherd allowed Andre Kelly the space to make 11 of his 14 shots, but a one-man show isn’t the precursor to an upset. For the most part, Cal was denied entry into the lane, and their 1 for 14 shooting from three did little to compensate for their lack of easier baskets.

“I knew that we were going to take Cal’s best shot because I know what Mark Fox is made of and I know how upset he was with their defense Thursday,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said. “They gave up 50 points in the paint (versus USC). They were minus-38 in points in the paint. I can only imagine their film session and their practice yesterday. So we told our guys it was going to be World War III. We were probably going to have to grind it out. We do a good job at taking care of the ball. We’re top 10 in the country in that. It gives us a chance. Eventually we knocked down some shots.”

Tyger Campbell, the orchestrator of UCLA’s attack finished with 17 points, four assists. Jaime Jaquez, Jr. contributed 14, and Riley added 9. Juzang missed seven of his 10 shots, but buried the big 3-pointer late to make his 3 for 10 shooting more impactful.

Trojans Brought Their Horse: Undefeated USC stops Cal’s streak at Haas, wins 77-63

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–That rust enveloping the USC Trojans–built up over nearly three weeks following their last game on December 18–dissipated rather quickly.

The Cal Bears, hoping to catch USC out of sync, soon found themselves being dismantled by the visitors, with each, successive possession and after timeouts. Conceding too many opportunities on the glass, and bleeding points in the paint, the Bears were worn down in their first home defeat, losing 77-63.

“They’re good, and we have to play better to beat a great team,” coach Mark Fox admitted.

Cal started fast, holding their own in an uptempo start that saw the lead exchanged nine times in the first ten minutes. But it soon became apparent that the surprisingly disciplined Trojans were stout as advertised. First, USC showed unexpected proficiency at the foul line, converting 11 of their 13 attempts. Then the visitors controlled the glass (39-24 rebounding edge) and attacked the basket relentlessly (50-14 edge in points in the paint). Cal aided USC by shooting just 41 percent from the floor for the game, and sprinkling in some glaring, empty possessions.

“We felt like we gave the game away,” said Grant Anticevich, who led Cal with 19 points. “Credit to USC. They are a top-10 team for a reason. But we just made too many mistakes.”

“Once we started defending at a higher level, we took the lead,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “Our defense in the second half was outstanding.”

Isaiah Mobley led the Trojans with 19 points, and Drew Peterson added 17. Boogie Ellis, the transfer guard from Memphis, had 14.

Jordan Shepherd scored 17 points, and Andre Kelly came up with 13 points, 11 rebounds, but the Bears got almost no secondary help. Starters Kuany Kuany and Joel Brown were factors defensively, but failed to make a shot from the floor, far less than what was needed to aid Cal’s upset bid. Jalen Celestine scored 10 points off the bench but could have played a bigger factor were it not a couple of questionable decisions with the ball in his hands.

Cal trimmed their deficit to 54-50 with 9:20 remaining only to see the Trojans surge again and regain their double-digit advantage. What started on the defensive end incorporated high percentage shooting as USC shot 64 percent after halftime.

“We made some positive plays,” Fox said. “We just didn’t threaten enough in the second half.”

MISSING MATT?: In an interesting comparison, the Cal transfer that has many saying “what if?” Matt Bradley has already seen USC this season. Bradley opted to forgo his stature as Cal’s go-to guy, transferred to San Diego State, and his Aztecs faced the Trojans in the Paycom Wooden Legacy Championship Game in Anaheim on November 26.

It didn’t go well for Bradley.

The Trojans’ length and singular focus on getting Bradley stopped, paid off as the 6’3″ guard was limited to three points in 25 minutes on the floor. Bradley shot 1 for 7, including 0 for 4 from three.

Bedeviled in Berkeley: Arizona State sees their mastery of Cal end in a 74-50 defeat at Haas Pavilion

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Arizona State figured to be stuck in traffic dealing with the nationally-ranked Bruins and Trojans in Los Angeles this weekend. Instead, the Sun Devils surfaced in serene, socially distanced Haas Pavilion and got their forks handed to them in an very unceremonious manner by the Cal Bears.

Oh, the irony? Yes, the irony.

The suddenly ascendant Bears put together their best 40 minutes of basketball this season, and throttled ASU, 74-50, bringing an end to the Sun Devils’ seven-game win streak in the series between the schools.

“We did defend well, we did play very well on offense, and we did rebound it pretty well,” coach Mark Fox said. “So we did a lot a really good things and it’s a complete performance for us, but not as complete as it could have been. But you know what, our team competed well and I was really proud of them for that.”

Competitive? Complete performance? Suddenly the Bears–undefeated at home, and miraculously avoiding the pitfalls of COVID protocols–aren’t the club picked to finish last in the Pac-12. Instead they’re credible defensively, and meticulously prepared. Arizona State found out right away as Cal zoomed to a 41-23 halftime lead fueled by a 7-0 advantage in made 3-pointers. Fox hated that his Bears squandered some free throw opportunities early, missing five of their first seven, but the disparity beyond the arc was undeniable.

“It was the difference in the ballgame,” Fox said.

Cal suffered some hiccups in the first five minutes of the second half, but took off again after that, maintaining their big lead and unleashing some new weapons in the process.

Lars Thiemann, literally Cal’s biggest project, showed out by hanging near the rim and making himself available for easy shot attempts. The seven-footer routinely fumbled as many passes as he caught previously. But hard work has paid off. Fox spoke of the hours Thiemann has put in, not to mention the reminders the Cal coaching staff provided during breaks in Sunday’s game. Thiemann came up with all seven of his points in the second half, allowing Cal to ultimately pad their lead, while giving them a clear, size advantage on the smallish Sun Devils.

Sam Alajiki, who previously wowed the Bears coaching staff with his defensive presence, also contributed to the Bears’ hot stretch. Alajiki entered the game, and immediately canned a three, stretching Cal’s lead to 52-33 with 11:45 remaining.

The Bears were led by Jordan Shepherd with 16 points, Andre Kelly added 13, and Grant Anticevich had 10 points, 10 rebounds. Arizona State got 17 points from sophomore D.J. Horn, but no other ASU player tallied more than nine as their horrible 32 percent shooting from the floor doomed the visitors from the start.

“We know it’s not one guy who’s going to do it all for us,” Kelly said. “If one guy is not necessarily having his best night then we have a good deep team so a lot of people can step up and make good plays,” Kelly said. 

Cal shot 51 percent from the floor and outrebounded ASU 38-32. The Bears stayed undefeated at home, and improved to 9-5, 2-1 in the Pac-12 with the win. And now the Bears get their shot at the top ten Southern California schools both of whom have been impacted by COVID and will visit Berkeley during a compacted schedule of three games in five days.

“We need four times the number of people to show up,” Fox said while acknowledging the 2,974 fans that showed up Sunday, including the coach’s wife and daughter who were pressed into duty as staffers to aid the hastily arranged home game.

Cal hosts USC on Thursday at 8pm, and UCLA on Saturday at 5pm at Haas Pavilion.