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.