What Happened in Vegas Has Cal Staying in Vegas: Bears shock Stanford, 63-51 in Pac-12 tournament opener

By Morris Phillips

The Cal Bears didn’t pick the best occasion to draw attention to themselves, but they drew notice nonetheless by surprising Stanford in their Pac-12 Tournament opener.

Against the backdrop of the Coronavirus, and the news of events being cancelled worldwide because of the pandemic, the tenth-seeded Bears put forth their most focused effort of the season by beating Stanford, 63-51 and doing so from beginning to end at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“I saw a team all week that was preparing to play, and I thought we were excited to come play, and then I watched the broadcast and everyone was picking against us, I wasn’t sure if we were still in the league! But I knew our kids were ready to play,” coach Mark Fox kidded in an interview with the Pac-12 Network following the game.

The Bears took an early lead only to see the Cardinal tie the score, 17-17 with 5:29 remaining before halftime. But Paris Austin and Kareem South followed with consecutive jumpers keying a 7-0 Cal run, and the Bears maintained the lead over the game’s final 24 minutes.

The Bears advance to a quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded UCLA on Thursday while Stanford suffered a bad loss in a game they badly needed for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament.

Stanford seemed bothered by the physicality of the game, shooting just 32 percent from the floor in dropping their third, straight game. The Cardinal finish the regular season 20-12 with favorable, peripheral numbers preferred by the NCAA selection committee, but the loss leaves them squarely on the bubble. The Cardinal received an unlikely endorsement from Fox after the game.

“This league deserves to have seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford had some great wins,” Fox said.

The Bears were led by Matt Bradley and Austin with 18 points, six rebounds each. South added 15 as the Bears shot 48 percent from the floor.  Cal has won four of seven after losing seven of nine, and advanced in the conference tournament for the first time since 2017.

The Bears are expected to play the remainder of the tournament without fans attending their games as the conference announced before the Cal-Stanford game commenced that attendance to the remaining games would be severely restricted.

“We love to play in front of fans, but right now safety is the most important thing,” Austin said.

 

NCAA Ready: Oregon displays postseason form in 90-56 rout of Cal

By Morris Phillips

Well, the Oregon Ducks and Cal Bears aren’t on the same trajectory.

While the Bears exercised their ability to stay connected to a superior opponent (without success), the Ducks’ dress rehearsal for a lengthy NCAA Tournament run looked like the real thing in Oregon’s 90-56 thrashing of Cal.

The Ducks opened with five, consecutive made shots, then went on a 21-0 run to put the game out of reach before halftime. Payton Pritchard, UO’s leader and long distance marksman led the effort with 20 points, nine assists. The Ducks regained a share of first place in the Pac-12 with the win, and they clinch a least a tie for the title in the regular season finale against Stanford on Saturday.

“The first half I really thought we really flew around and made a lot of defensive plays. And our ball movement was good and we obviously shot well at three, which gives you a big boost offensively,” coach Dana Altman said of his Ducks.

Only one word could describe Oregon’s offensive output: torrid. The Ducks shot 60 percent from the field, 70 percent from three (12 of 17), and converted 80 percent of their free throws.  The Ducks shared the ball with five players in double figures, and 18 assists on 31 made baskets.

Coach Mark Fox had hopes his team could summon its best effort after consecutive home wins, but the Bears didn’t come close.

“I was disappointed in our approach to the game, but I want to give Oregon credit. They played very well,” Fox said. “The only thing I was surprised by was our very poor start to the game.”

The 34-point margin of victory was the largest ever for Oregon in a victory over Cal. The Bears hadn’t given up at least 90 points in over a year dating back to a lopsided loss to UCLA. The Bears shot a chilly 36 percent from the floor for the game, and 33 percent in the first half, after which they trailed 46-20.

Matt Bradley led the Bears (13-17, 7-10) with 15 points, Grant Anticevich added 10.

The Bears conclude the regular season on Saturday in Corvallis against Oregon State.

Disaster Avoided: Kings survive awful, third quarter, beat Wizards, 133-126

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–Maintaining relevance as the NBA’s 17th best team with a record seven games below .500 with just 20 games left in a 82-game season isn’t easily attained, especially for the forgotten Kings, who haven’t been on the postseason landscape since 2006.

But the Kings’ stretch of 12 wins in 17 games has turned heads, not to mention stolen attention from Zion Williamson and the Pelicans, who are fashioning themselves as the NBA’s most intriguing, non-playoff team. So how do the Kings keep the buzz down the stretch?

Don’t take games–or quarters within games– off. Beating the Wizards on Tuesday pointed to what a disciplined feat that would be.

“Offensively we had ball movement, body movement, we played unselfishly. We came too soft in the third quarter, we lost the momentum, but we also have to be proud of the guys … to fight back, get momentum back and find a way to win,” said assistant coach Igor Kokoskov, who assumed head coaching duties when Luke Walton was ejected for the first time as Sacramento’s coach.

The Kings hovered above the clouds in a 76-point, first half that had the Wizards reeling. Then the Kings’ momentum and 27-point lead evaporates as Bradley Beal and the Wiz caught fire. Walton was dispatched after growing irate over a missed foul call on Cory Joseph. And the fourth quarter commenced with the Kings in need of an immediate response.

“We did a pretty good job of closing the game,” said De’Aaron Fox, who paced Sacramento with 31 points. “The third quarter was just bad for us all around. The other three quarters I think we played pretty well.”

In the good stretches, the Kings shared the ball, and attacked the basket as Kokosov noted. Seven Kings finished in double figures in scoring, and the team shot 56 percent from the floor. But NBA games are relentlessly competitive, and Washington–in keeping with their own playoff aspirations–made a run.

“In the second half, the coach lit a fire up under us and we came out to be the team we should have been the whole game,” said Beal, who scored 35 points, the 19th consecutive game he’s scored at least 25. “I think we got the message for sure.”

 

Boot the Utes: Balanced Bears outlast Utah, 86-79 in overtime

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Fewer mistakes, staunch defense, more and varied contributors, the Cal Bears are starting to play better basketball.

Could they be ready to take the show on the road?

By outlasting Utah 86-79 in overtime on Saturday, the Cal Bears assured they won’t finish in the conference’s basement for the third, consecutive year. So with two regular season games and the conference tournament remaining, could the Bears..

Knock off No. 14 Oregon on Thursday, and put the Ducks conference title aspirations on hold? The Bears hadn’t won on the road, or beaten a ranked opponent. Now that they’ve done both (won at WSU, beat No. 21 Colorado) could they double down and accomplish both feats in the same game?

Sweep the Oregon schools and finish .500 in conference play? Talk about the ultimate, confidence builder, that would send the Bears into the conference tournament with a four-game win streak and momentum.

Maybe, maybe not, but by consistently elevating their play, Coach Mark Fox’s Bears have changed the discourse surrounding the program.

“I got sick of everybody telling us how bad we were going to be because I just didn’t think we would be,” Fox said. “I wasn’t going to accept that and I wasn’t going to let our team accept that. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be but the perception and the feelings about our team and this program are drastically different than what I heard all this summer.”

In beating Utah, the Bears (13-16, 7-9) had to climb off the mat twice, the second time when the Utes wiped out a six-point deficit in the game’s final minute to force overtime.

The Bears regrouped, scoring nine of the first 12 points of overtime to take control. Matt Bradley contributed six of those, the last of his team-leading 21-point performance. The Bears sealed it by making nine of their ten free throw opportunities in the extra session.

Bradley’s often excelled without help this season, but on the occasion of Senior Day at Haas Pavilion, the Cal star performed as a piece of a quartet.

Grant Anticevich had a big second half, finishing with 17 points, eight rebounds. Senior Paris Austin, who was honored before the game along with Jacob Orender, David Serge and Kareem South, contributed 15 points, four assists. And Andre Kelly had 15 points, nine rebounds and a career-best five blocks in 31 minutes off the bench.

Bradley and Kelly led the Bears to a 19-14 start to the game only to see Utah finish the half on a 14-5 run to take a lead at the break. Alfonso Plummer had nine of his 23 points for the Utes before halftime.

The Bears scored the first seven points of the second half to regain the lead. Austin’s layup put Cal up 31-28 with 18:23 remaining.

Timmy Allen led Utah with 26 points. Guard Both Gach appeared to create a three-point opportunity in the final seconds that could have given Utah the lead, but the referee waved off Gach’s bucket, ruling Austin’s foul came before the shot. With two seconds remaining, Gach made both free throws to force overtime.

With the loss, Utah (15-14, 6-11) finished 0-9 in conference road games. The Utes conclude their schedule against Colorado on Saturday at home.

The Biggest Win of the Season?: Cal handles No. 21 Colorado in season’s most significant moment yet

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–For the rebuilding Cal Bears, every win is revelatory, and beating a Top 25 opponent for the first time this season, even more so.

In beating No. 21 Colorado with the Buffs desperate to maintain pace in the race for the top spot in the Pac-12, and just as eager to avoid a bad loss for the NCAA Tournament committee to see, the Bears truly surprised with their 76-62 win on Thursday.

They just didn’t surprise themselves or Coach Mark Fox.

“We had time to prepare, and I think guys came in with the right mentality,” Kareem South said. “I seen it in their eyes before the game that they were locked in.”

The Bears built upon their 25 minutes of credible basketball in a frustrating loss to Colorado at Boulder earlier this month by maintaining an efficient, offensive performance for 40 minutes in Thursday’s win. The key was having South as a second, elite performer to join the consistent Matt Bradley, who burned Colorado for a career-best 26 points on just 14 shots from the floor.

“Even though we didn’t close out that game, it did give us some confidence coming into this game that if we just string together a few more minutes of it, we’ll give ourselves a chance to win. And that’s what happened,” Fox said of the transition from the first meeting to the second against Colorado.

South’s 19 points on 12 shots from the field may have been his best performance of the season, and clearly his best in conference play. The graduate transfer had seen his confidence shaken by a stretch of missing 45 of his previous 58 shots over seven games. But in the first seven minutes against the Buffs, South drove the basket for two scores, then came up with a steal and a coast-to-coast layup. That sequence seemed to energize his game.

Cal’s 38-point, first half not only put them up 12 at the break, but put Colorado on skates. Their normal, offensive patience disappeared in the second half, as they looked like the unranked challenger and Cal the NCAA-bound favorite. The Buffaloes missed 17 of 20 3-point attempts after the break and never gave themselves a chance to rally. Cal protected their lead by simply playing off Colorado’s over aggressive defense, which sent the Bears to the line 17 times after the break, where they converted 13 times.

The Bears improved to 12-16, 6-9 and could clinch a spot in a winnable 8-9 quarterfinal game in the conference tournament with another win in their final three regular season contests. Utah affords them their best shot, and that comes on Saturday afternoon in the home finale.

Colorado fell to 21-8, 10-6 and the loss likely cost them any chance at winning the regular season title. They lost consecutive ballgames for the first time in conference play, and will need to string together some wins down the stretch to improve their NCAA tournament seeding. Coach Tad Boyle pointed to his team’s lack of aggressive, offensive play that has seen them attempt a paltry average of just 11 free throws over their last five ballgames.

“When you don’t make shots, you’d better figure out another way to win. That’s by getting to the foul line, which we can’t do,” Boyle admitted. “If you can’t get stops, you can’t get to the line, you can’t finish through contact, you can’t make open shots, you can’t win.”

McKinley Wright led Colorado with 18 points. Tyler Bey added 13 and Lucas Siewert had 11.

 

 

 

 

52 Won’t Do: Cal goes cold, shut down by Washington in 87-52 loss at Seattle

By Morris Phillips

If we know anything about the Cal Bears, them scoring 52 points is not good.

For the sixth time this season, the Bears posted exactly 52 points on Saturday afternoon at Washington. And for the fifth time, that meant a discouraging, double-digit loss in which the team’s offense disappeared without a moment’s notice.

“We’ve had some defeats,” coach Mark Fox said of the 87-52 loss to the Huskies. “But this one was a stinker.”

The Bears led 17-11 with 11:33 remaining in the first half, then went 15 minutes spanning the halves without a bucket. Trying to subsist on free throws alone, Cal found themselves trailing 43-26 at the half. Then after the halftime break, and likely after an earful from Fox, the Bears surrendered the first 11 points of the second half to fall behind by 28.

Cal fans needing to wrap their head around something to understand the Bears’ collapse instead were presented with a statistical oddity. In trailing 54-28, the Bears had missed 21 of their 25 shots from the field, while making all 16 of their free throws, which looked good, but did little to keep them in the game. And the wildly juxtaposed numbers didn’t end there: Cal had just three assists and 12 turnovers through the game’s first 24 minutes.

After the final whistle, the numbers weren’t much better for one of Division I’s most offensively challenged teams. Cal finished with just 11 made baskets and 17 turnovers in 40 minutes of hard-to-watch basketball.

Of course, the Huskies noticed very little of Cal’s struggles. The win ended a nine-game losing streak for the Pac-12’s most confounding team, one which came into the season with two elite freshman recruits and Top 25 expectations only to beat No. 1 Baylor in the season’s first month, then go into the tank. Even with the win, UW still sits in the conference basement at 13-15, 3-12.

But all the struggles didn’t prevent them from playing well on Saturday.

“We really locked in. We were really active. Guys did a good job of being focused and aware of what we were trying to do. And they executed it,” coach Mike Hopkins said.

After the game, Hopkins’ emotions surfaced in trying to thank the Washington fans for sticking with his group. The coach hilariously ended his press conference with a hopeful message, and a theatrical drop of the microphone as he departed.

“It shows you what this place can be and is going to be. So thank you fans out there. Go Dawgs!” Hopkins said in advance of his grand exit to humored laughs from the assembled journalists.

Cal was led by Matt Bradley with 14 points, but the Bears’ leading scorer missed eight of his 11 shots from the floor. Afterwards, the Huskies revealed that limiting Bradley was their top objective. No other Bears finished in double figures, Grant Anticevich and Kuany Kuany each had 7 points.

Nahziah Carter led UW with 16 points, freshman Isaiah Stewart had 15.

The Bears finish their home schedule this week starting with a visit from Colorado on Thursday at 6pm. Utah visits Haas Pavilion on Saturday.

 

Kings Engaged: Season may be slipping away, but 129-125 win over the Grizzlies sends the right messages

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–The Kings might not be in position to catch the Grizzlies for the coveted, franchise-changing eighth spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

Along similar lines–and relevant to Thursday night’s post-All Star intro–rookie of the year candidate Ja Morant might not be ready to surpass Kings’ third-year guard De’Aaron Fox either.

The head-to-head matchup of future All-Star point guards went to decisively to Fox, who put up 26 points, four assists in leading the Kings to a 129-125 win over Memphis that turned into a nail biter in the final minutes. The reason for the late rush and the close finish? Morant had his hands on that with 15 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, but ultimately Fox’s defense and Morant’s turnovers (5) swung the outcome for Sacramento.

“Every game is a must-win and (we) have to play each game like our back is against the wall if we want to make things interesting, and we can,” Buddy Hield said.

The win pulled the Kings within six games of Memphis with 27 contests remaining in the regular season. Complicating matters, and increasing the odds of a Kings’ resurgence is the presence of the Blazers, Spurs and Pelicans with records slightly better than the Kings. But when you’ve missed the playoffs for 14 years and running, you scratch and claw until your time runs out.

The Kings overcame a huge, size disparity against the Grizzlies with superior shooting and fewer mistakes. Sacramento was outrebounded 51-27 as they again were without Marvin Bagley and Richaun Holmes, as well as Dewayne Dedmon, who was traded to Atlanta. Harrison Barnes aided in the process with 32 points, including seven made 3-pointers, as well as Kent Bazemore, who contributed 18 points, but only needed 10 shots to get there.

With Barnes and Bazemore giving the Kings an early advantage, their defensive strategy to fall back into the paint and challenge Memphis’ shooters to make shots played out perfectly as starting guards Morant and Dillon Brooks missed all seven of their shots from distance, allowing the Kings to grab a 37-35 advantage after one quarter, which they built on by scoring the first nine points of the second.

But in a game of runs and swings, the Grizzlies got back into behind reserve guards De’Anthony Melton (24 points), Tyus Jones and Josh Jackson. Hield spearheaded Sacramento’s bench with 20 points, but the Kings were hampered by Jabari Parker’s debut, in which he appeared out of shape, no doubt a product of the former Duke player having played in just one game since Christmas.

The Kings are expected to give Parker and Alex Len–players acquired in the deadline deals–a look, but won’t hesitate to move on from either player. Len was unavailable Thursday, but could play as early as Saturday in Los Angeles against the Clippers.

This Time The Road is Kind: Cal whips WSU in Pullman, 66-57

By Morris Phillips

The Cal Bears had to take their most arduous trip, and find the most vulnerable opponent–in a rare Wednesday night contest–to end their road woes.

No need to ask: they’ll take it.

Paris Austin, Andre Kelly and Matt Bradley combined for 46 points in Cal’s 66-57 win over Washington State, their first win away from Haas Pavilion this season. The Bears had dropped all six of their previous road contests as well as three, neutral site games in November and December.

“For this team, no one gave them a chance to have much success so any time that they have some I want them to enjoy it and understand how they found that success so they can build on it,” coach Mark Fox said.

“Hopefully tonight they can enjoy this victory and look back and see why we won the game so it can happen again.”

Since losing their final, three non-conference games, then their Pac-12 opener to Stanford, Cal has won five of 12, equaling their number of conference wins the last two seasons combined. Beating WSU almost insures they won’t finish last in the Pac-12 this season with five games remaining.

The Bears built a 17-point, first half lead only to see the Cougars get within six points with less than two minutes remaining. Leading 60-54, Cal converted six free throw attempts to close it out.

Isaac Bonton, WSU’s starting point guard and second-leading scorer missed the game with a leg injury. Benton’s absence left WSU out of sync offensively, especially leading scorer C.J. Elleby, who missed 14 of his 18 shot attempts.

 

Running With the Devils: Bears acquit themselves quite respectably in 80-75 loss to Arizona State

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–A high-scoring game is the last thing the Cal Bears want to be involved in.

Unless, you’re a Cal fan and ticket holder, then your attitude is probably why not?

The Bears’ rebuilding process that landed them in the Pac-12 basement in 2018 and 2019 has them traversing the bottom tier of Division I point-producers in 2020. Coming into Cal’s home game against Arizona State on Sunday, the Bears ranked 335th (out of 350) in scoring offense averaging a bare bones 62.2 points per game.

With the notable exceptions of defending National Champion Virginia (ranked 347th) and NCAA-worthy Wisconsin (302), it’s the bottom of a list teams would rather avoid. Littered with struggling squads across Division I, it’s a place where anxiety abounds. Players doubt their abilities, coaches like Shaka Smart of Texas (325) find themselves on the hot seat, and ticket holders check out faster than they check in.

For Cal, hosting red-hot ASU, averaging 77 points a game over a four-game win streak that has the Sun Devils dreaming of the NCAA Tournament, seemed like more bad news in a season that’s already been trying enough.

But it wasn’t. The Bears battled Arizona State into the final minute in a 80-75 loss that turned on a late ASU surge and the brillance of Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year candidate Remy Martin.

Martin had 22 points–15 in the second half–as ASU built an eight-point lead with three minutes remaining and held on to win for the seventh time in eight games. The Bears shot 48 percent in the second half–and scored nine points in the final 45 seconds–to make it a close shave, and a watchable, competitive affair.

“Sometimes in defeats you play well but we didn’t win, which is what we came here to do,” coach Mark Fox admitted.

Martin, the senior from Los Angeles, and arguably college basketball’s most prominent Filipino-American player, has scored in double figures in all 12 conference games. In nine of those, including Sunday, he’s scored at least 20.

“He hits the deep 3, he hit the shot off one leg and stopped, just really high level of difficulty shots but he get so much attention from defenses it’s really never easy for him to score too often,” coach Bobby Hurley said of Martin. “He continues to surprise me, the things I see him do out there.”

The Sun Devils achieved a conference road sweep for the first time in a decade with the win. ASU also beat Stanford 74-69 on Thursday. The rare, but also quirky, occurrence happens rarely, just not normally only once a decade. This season in the Pac-12, only ASU and Arizona (both occurrences this weekend) have accomplished the feat.

“I know its been talked about quite a bit but it’s not really a thing for me,” Hurley said of ASU’s first sweep since January 2010 over the Oregon schools. “It’s more where we stand right now, just can ill afford to lose, and got to keep it rolling the way we’ve been.”

Matt Bradley led Cal with 20 of his 22 points after halftime. Grant Anticevich added 18 points, eight rebounds and Paris Austin had 17. The Bears (10-15, 4-8) have lost seven of nine since sweeping the Washington schools, but remain in a tight grouping of five schools, placed seventh through 11th, for seeding in the upcoming conference tournament.

Cal visits Pullman, Washington and Washington State on Thursday night.

 

 

Wildcat Wakeup Call: Lethargic Arizona surges after halftime, beats Cal 68-52

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Cal’s season-long shooting issues didn’t get corrected on Thursday night. Arizona’s shooting struggles created last week at home against the Los Angeles schools did, with a jolt of confidence that surfaced in a timely manner after halftime.

Some issues are chronic, some are fleeting. In a 16-point road victory over Cal, Arizona and sharpshooter Dylan Smith found theirs are fleeting. Smith helped UA break open a one-point game with four, consecutive made 3-pointers–after 18 misses dating back to late January–as the Wildcats surged to a comfortable 68-52 win over host Cal.

Arizona coach Sean Miller considered benching Smith and his balky jump shot against Cal. Ultimately, he penciled the fifth-year senior into the lineup because Miller knew Smith would help Arizona win. Miller’s intuition was spot on.

“It’s just I don’t want Dylan Smith to be the scapegoat because we lost a home game or because he’s shooting poorly,” Miller said. “You don’t start him tonight and all of a sudden that’s the answer.”

The Bears lost their third straight, after a competitive start that saw them trail by seven at the half, and 33-32 with 13:59 remaining, only to see their offense lose steam down the stretch. Cal shot 38 percent for the game, but their starters shot just 32 percent with the majority of the misses in the game’s final 10 minutes.

“We have to keep the score down,” coach Mark Fox explained. “At 32-33, they went on a 7-0 run, and we never threatened after that. When they got into the bonus with 12 minutes to go, it makes it hard for us to run the style of play that gives us the best chance to win.”

The Pac-12’s lowest scoring team, and also the team with the slowest pace, scored exactly 52 points for the fifth time this season. On four of those occasions–including Thursday–the Bears (10-14, 4-7) suffered a double-digit loss.

“We want it to be a low-scoring game,” Matt Bradley said. “For us to win games, we need to play defense. Tonight, our defense wasn’t there, and that’s why we lost.”

Bradley led Cal with 19 points, eight rebounds, but he missed 11 of his 18 shots. Bradley was the only Cal player in double digits, Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly each added eight points.

The Bears get an opportunity to better energize their Haas Pavilion crowd on Sunday afternoon when Arizona State visits at 3pm.