By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — Aggressiveness, experience and nerve–the Saint Mary’s Gaels brought so much of those elements through the Caldecott Tunnel on Saturday night, they probably needed two team buses to transport it all.
The Cal Bears were left to experience all three, to their detriment in a 89-77 loss. In a December filled with hard lessons, the Bears fell to 6-5 with all five losses by double digits, this one the first of the five at Haas Pavilion.
St. Mary’s–on the cusp of the nation’s Top 25 with a 10-2 record, but coming off a loss to notable mid-major Dayton–shot 54 percent for the game and led by 19 at one point. The Gaels hurt the Bears from distance, hitting nine 3-pointers in the first half, and 10 of 15 for the game. Leaving shooters open has been an issue for the Bears in their streak of five losses in their previous six games, and that didn’t dissipate against the Gaels, who lead the nation in 3-point shooting percentage at better than 44 percent.
“I felt like we got off to a very good start and then we let some offensive struggles impact our defense in the last half of the first half against a very good offensive team and we obviously can’t do that,” coach Mark Fox said. “Saint Mary’s shot the ball extremely well as we knew they would and we didn’t do the job defensively to slow them down.”
The game featured a trio of outstanding, individual performances starting with St. Mary’s senior forward Malik Fitts, who scored 21 of his 28 points before halftime. With the Bears deploying Juhwan Harris-Dyson on Fitts in the second half, his scoring slowed, but Jordan Ford’s surged. The St. Mary’s guard scored 25 of his 32 points after halftime, including a three with 4:32 remaining that re-established the Gaels’ double-digit lead, 75-64.
“It’s kind of a pick-your-poison type of deal. One of us is probably going to have a good game, hopefully both of us,” Ford said of Fitts’ performance and his own.
Andre Kelly put up a career-high 26 points for Cal, 20 of those after halftime as the Bears found a way fight back offensively, if not defensively. Kelly had success against St. Mary’s bigger post players, Mathias Tass and Aaron Menzies, so much so that coach Randy Bennett elected to go with reserve Dan Fotu for a long stretch. But with the game in the latter stages, Kelly got the ball in the post and was tied up by Tass with the held ball situation giving the ball back to the Gaels. That prevented the Bears from reducing a 70-60 deficit with 6:01 remaining.
The series between the neighboring schools separated by 11 miles and the East Bay hills concluded for now after games in each of the last three seasons. St. Mary’s captured all three–by double digits–but Bennett concurred that the Bears were much improved over the last two seasons in his comments after the game.
When pressed, both coaches had interesting takes on what it would take to continue the series in the future.
“We would like to protect some of these Bay Area games, but I can’t protect them all,” Fox said, citing the Pac-12’s increasing league games from 18 to 20 starting next season, which takes two non-conference games away. “That’s mathematically going to be impossible if we still want to play other people and grow our program.”
“I think it’s a game that if they’re good and we’re good, it makes sense,” Bennett said. “If either one of us aren’t good, it probably doesn’t make sense.
The WCC agreed to reduce the number of their conference games from 18 to 16 for their 10 members, which in part is how Cal managed to see all three Bay Area members–USF, St. Mary’s and Santa Clara–in the previous, two weeks. Bennett, who has seen a soft strength of schedule prevent two of his previous teams from making NCAA tournament appearances, loves the new arrangement. In the first year of the increase in non-conference opportunities, the long time Gaels’ coach has scheduled Dayton, Utah State, Wisconsin and Arizona State, all opponents that will catch the eye of the tournament selection committee.
The Bears resume their schedule on Saturday at the Chase Center in San Francisco against ACC opponent Boston College. That game is part of a quadruple header that will feature Stanford and St. Mary’s as well.