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.





Improved Bears take No. 11 Oregon to the wire in 75-72 loss

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Two weeks ago, a visit from a ranked opponent would have resulted in a lopsided loss for the Cal Bears. On Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, No. 11 Oregon got all they could handle from the improving Bears in a 75-72 win that had the Ducks sweating in the final minute. How’s that?

The Bears, for one of the only times all season, showed a varied, effective offense that had them even at halftime and leading 52-45 with 11 minutes remaining. At that point, Payton Pritchard, arguably the Pac-12’s best player, took over and led the Ducks to a big win that keeps them at the top of the conference standings with a 7-2 record.

“I was trying to be aggressive right away.” Pritchard said of mindset starting the second half of a tied game. “We made a run there and made something happen.”

Pritchard led the Ducks with 21 points, long-armed, defensive whiz Chris Duarte added 19 and Will Richardson contributed 15. For Cal, Matt Bradley got hot in the second half, scoring 20 of his game-best 25 points.

Early on the Bears got the best of what freshman Lars Theimann has offered thus far in Cal career. The 7’0″ center made all four of his shot attempts, scoring eight points, that gave the Bears’ attack some inside-out balance. From outside, Bradley, Grant Anticevich and Kareem South combined to make nine 3-pointers.

In a game ultimately decided by just three points, the Bears will remember their empty possessions that resulted in 14 turnovers, and their lack of bench contributions with 70 of their 72 points coming from the starters. But for a team again trying to avoid the basement in the Pac-12, the effort may have been their best so far, and a clear sign the embattled group is sticking together, and showing some improvement.

In the end, Pritchard with his ability to drive, shoot and make flawless decisions along with the Ducks’ trapping defenses made the difference in a surprisingly close game.

Cal puts the squeeze on Stanford late, escapes with an improbable 52-50 win

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–An upset realized despite the slimmest margin of error?

Yes, that would describe the Cal Bears’ unlikely, come-from-behind 52-50 win over rival Stanford on Sunday. For the Bears, the win provides a measure of affirmation in a season as trying as any. For Stanford, a damaging loss that knocks the surprising Cardinal out of first place in the Pac-12, and puts pause to their NCAA tournament hopes.

So how did Cal pull it off? Simply, they never wavered.

“We just kept on fighting,” said Kareem South, who contributed 13 points, including a pair of big buckets in the final five minutes. “And that was the result of the game. You know, we were down eleven at one point and, you know, credit to Stanford’s team, they’re a really good team. But we just kept on being physical and kept on fighting to the last play.”

With 12 minutes remaining, not only did the Bears trail 39-28 as South referenced, but they were on a lethargic point a minute pace that was established in their 50-40 loss at UCLA last weekend and continued unabated in front of their anxious crowd of 9,000 on Sunday at Haas Pavilion. Quite simply, not only were the Bears on their way to another sleepy loss but they were threatening to drive their fans batty with their inability to score.

Then everything changed in the bat of an eye, as the Bears put together a 17-2 run that gave them their first lead of the second half. And that just as quickly meant that a game that was being won by Stanford at the defensive end was now in Cal’s control courtesy of their defense.

“We started out the second very poorly defensively and then we didn’t finish a couple of plays,” coach Mark Fox said. “It took us several minutes to get it kind of locked back in defensively. So there’s some room for improvement there. You know, Stanford has a good team and they’re a hard team to guard. And we were fortunate to guard them well today.”

Over the final 12 minutes, the Cal defense proved subtly effective, harassing Stanford into seven missed shots and three turnovers while finally getting a handle of Tyrell Terry, the Cardinal’s high-scoring freshman guard. But just as pivotal was Oscar da Silva’s missed free throw with 1:16 remaining that would have allowed Stanford to regain the lead.

After Matt Bradley was errant on a 3-point attempt, Cal regained possession courtesy of Joel Brown’s steal. That set the stage for Paris Austin in the final seconds, who drove to the basket and drew a foul with three seconds remaining.

“We’re in the bonus and Paris had a hot hand,” Fox said. “I knew he could draw a foul and we could win the game at the free throw line. Fortunately, it worked out for us.”

Austin calmly knocked down both free throws, and Stanford failed to get a shot off in the game’s final seconds propelling Cal to the win.

For the fourth time this season, the Bears scored just 52 points. But instead of a double-digit loss, this time 52 points equaled a victory.




Bears Back In The Win Column: Back-and-forth game with Fresno State goes to Cal, 69-63

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Kareem South is just the type of player the Cal Bears need to get things turned around after two last place finishes in the Pac-12.

The Toronto native has size, smarts and a competitive streak that surfaces in tight ballgames. Not only that, South’s well-spoken after games–win or lose.

But the truth is the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi graduate transfer is here today, gone tomorrow, already 10 games into a Cal career that won’t last more than 35 games.

So, Wednesday’s meeting with visiting Fresno State was get it, or go without it for South. He chose get it, scoring 17 points and helping lead the Bears to a 69-63 win over the Bulldogs that had some tense moments late.

South did most of his scoring early with 15 of his 17 in the game’s first 30 minutes as the hot-shooting Bears led by three at the break, put couldn’t gain any separation from Fresno St. as the second half progressed.

South’s 3-pointer with 10:43 remaining put the Bears up 47-43, but they couldn’t pull away, establishing a pair of seven-point leads only to see the Bulldogs get within one, 59-58 with 3:38 left.

But the Bears responded with a 7-0 run that gave them their biggest lead if the night with 25 seconds remaining. Matt Bradley had four of his team-best 24 points in the closing stretch, sealing a nice bounce back for a team that had lost four of five, with all the losses on the road and by double-digits.

“Coach had certain aspects he wanted us to key in on, which was our defensive rebounding and playing sound and solid on the defensive end,” South said. “We also did a good job taking care of the ball and shot the ball pretty well.”

“We really locked in and got ourselves ready to play Fresno State, and I think tonight it showed We had a lot of confidence, and we were able to close it out during the last five minutes of play,” said Bradley, coming off losses at USF and Santa Clara that he personally was happy to put behind him. “I feel good about this win.”

When things got tight in the final minutes, the often stoic, coach Mark Fox implored the Haas Pavilion crowd to turn up the volume, sensing his x and o’s might not be enough against a credible Fresno State team.

“Our team is not battle-tested and they’re learning something new on both ends of the court,” Fox said. “We’re going to need our fans to stand up and break a sweat because this team has to overachieve.”

Fresno State lost for fifth straight game, the previous two in overtime. New Williams led the Bulldogs with 21 points, five rebounds, and Mustafa Lawrence added 16 off the bench.

The Bears next take the hardwood on Saturday hosting the St. Mary’s Gaels. The game starts at 7:30 p.m. as part of a doubleheader with the Cal women, who host Santa Clara in the opener at 4:30 p.m.

Cal’s trip to USF results in a 76-64 defeat and a Bay Area basketball history lesson

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO — Kevin Johnson and his sidekick, Dave Butler didn’t win at USF. They came to the Hilltop as seniors in December 1986 and suffered an agonizing, two-point loss that had Lou Campanelli seething.

Geno Carlisle, Sean Marks, Sean Lampley and Francisco (Cisco) Elson made the trip across the Bay as a formidable quartet in 1997. They lost to the Dons by double-digits.

And on Wednesday, Matt Bradley, Paris Austin, hustling Andre Kelly and the rest of the 2019 Bears couldn’t get past an impressive USF squad either. Their defense was way too spotty in a 76-64 defeat that had coach Mark Fox reinforcing important lessons afterwards to his young squad.

The unifying theme for Cal across a 34-year stretch of a memorable, Bay Area basketball rivalry?

Stay engaged, things could turn around before this season ends.

The ’86-87 Bears won at powerhouse Arizona late in that season, and went on to the NIT. The ’97-98 Bears almost knocked off Top Ten opponents Arizona and Stanford after losing to USF, and survived a season orphaned from the renovated Haas Pavilion at 12-15, good enough for fifth in Pac-10.

The next season, Carlisle, Lampley and Elson returned and led Cal to a 22-win season and an NIT Championship.

This season’s Bears probably aren’t headed to the NIT, or even an upper-half finish in the Pac-12, but the potential for them to improve is immense. The blunt Fox has the first–and last–words on his team’s ascendancy process.

“I thought it was poor,” Fox said, when asked if he thought the Bears’ defense against USF was inconsistent. “We finished the first half with about 10 minutes of good defense and that was about all that we played. Because in the second half our defense was nowhere near to the level it needs to be to beat a good basketball team.”

The Bears suffered the slow, offensive start they could not afford, falling behind 16-4 nine minutes in while missing their first, seven shot attempts. But as Fox noted, the Bears defense steadied at that point, and the offense made an appearance. That allowed Cal to climb within 32-29 at the break.

While USF and Cal are both starting over with first-year coaches, the Dons hold a sizeable edge in continuity and experience with former assistant Todd Golden assuming head coaching duties from the departed Kyle Smith, who took the Washington State job. Veteran leadership from seniors Jimbo Lull, Jordan Ratinho and junior Charles Mindlend sets the Dons apart from Cal as well. Winning easily at Haas Pavilion last season (79-60) provided USF the confidence they needed to impose their will on the Bears on Wednesday.

All of those factors surfaced to start the second half, as USF seized control.

Jamaree Bouyea canned a 3-pointer to increase the Dons lead to 12, 55-43 with 12:05 remaining. In that opening stretch of the half, the Bears were slow to get to USF shooters while Lull started to impose his will in the paint, with inexperienced Lars Thiemann as his primary defender.

Lull led USF with 20 points, eight rebounds. Golden lit up when talking about the 7’0″ center’s improvement over his time with USF.

“Where he’s really grown is he’s done a phenomenal job managing the double team. Everybody we faced to this point in the season at some point in the game has run a double team at him, and they’re running it from the baseline, they’re running it from the nail, and after that first couple of possessions where he was a little out of sorts, he did a phenomenal job handling it the rest of the night. It either led to points for him or kickout threes for other guys.”

“We were okay with him getting two point shots,” Fox said of Lull, also referencing the damage inflicted by the big man’s ability to facilitate offense for his teammates.

The Dons would lead by as much as 16 points twice in the second half. The Bears did some nice things offensively during the stretch, but also committed some damaging turnovers. On both ends of the floor, they failed to find any consistency.

“We’re learning how to compete,” Fox said.

The Bears (5-3) were led by Kareem South with 20 points. Matt Bradley added 11, but only two of those came in the game’s final 30 minutes. Freshman starter Joel Brown had an especially rough night directing the offense. His gaffes landed him on the bench for stretches.

Cal played for the first time this season in a true road game, and had to recover to reach 42 percent shooting from the field. They acquitted themselves well at the free throw line making 18 of 25, but missed 10 of their 14 3-point attempts. The Dons made 12 threes, and showed little fatigue despite suffering a four-point loss to Arizona State just 24 hours earlier.

“You just have to bring it,” South said. “That’s the mentality you have to have on the road.”

The Bears continue their Bay Area tour with a visit to Santa Clara on Saturday at 2 pm.

Cal hangs with No. 1 Duke briefly, then wilts in 87-52 loss at Madison Square Garden

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.




Bouncy Bears: Cal gets the jump on UNLV down the stretch, wins 79-75 in overtime

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Down nine points with less than eight minutes remaining, the Cal Bears needed a few elements in their game on Tuesday against UNLV.

Composure. Togetherness. Defense.

“I said the first team that starts playing defense is going to win,” California coach Mark Fox said. “I didn’t think either team particularly was great defensively in the first half. But in the second half, both teams decided to start playing defense so I think what the difference in the game was, was the turnovers. In the second half, they had 12, we had five. I thought that was really what was the deciding factor. We just kept battling, we just kept playing hard and found a way to win.”

“I think we just picked it up,” said guard Kareem South, one of four Bears in double figures with 14 points. “When it was the moment of truth, we locked it in and got stops.”

Through 30 minutes, the meeting of Rebels and Bears couldn’t have been any more even. UNLV led by two at the half (40-38) and there were 20 lead changes in the game. The teams even appeared similar in dimensions: both teams relied heavily on their guards attacking the paint against smallish, front lines.

But the game turned in the final minutes for the home team. The Bears created offense from their defense, and rode a 16-2 run spanning the end of regulation and the beginning of overtime for a 79-75 victory. After consecutive 20-loss seasons, and a coaching change, Cal is 2-0.

Donnie Tillman led UNLV with 17 points, Elijah Mitrou-Long added 16, but the Rebels couldn’t maintain their 59 percent shooting from the first half. The turnovers and missed shots down the stretch may have partially been the product of fatigue and the Rebels’ lack of depth. Four of their five starters played more than 40 minutes, Mitrou-Long and reserve Nick Blair fouled out.

“In the second half, our defense kicked in but then we had too many turnovers,” UNLV coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “We have talked a lot about it–for us to be successful we need to do those things night in and night out.”

Matt Bradley led Cal with 23 points after he scored 25 in the opener against Pepperdine. Joel Brown added 12, and Paris Austin 10 points as the Bears relied heavily on dribble penetration, shooting 21 for 36 inside the 3-point arc.

Juhwan Harris-Dyson made his season debut playing 20 minutes, contributing five points and two rebounds. His defense and veteran presence will be critical for a young team that has so little veteran experience.

The Bears next play California Baptist Friday night in the opener of the 2K Empire Classic, a series of games against scheduled opponents that will see Cal play four games in eight days, including a matchup with Duke in Madison Square Garden in New York on November 21.