calbears.com photo: The Cal Bears Ivan Rabb throws down against Louisiana Tech’s defense at Haas Pavilion at UC Berkeley
By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY–On Wednesday, with Ivan Rabb on the bench in foul trouble, Jabari Bird and Kameron Rooks in street clothes, and Louisiana Tech breathing down their collective necks in a close ballgame late, the Cal Bears passed with flying colors.
You don’t survive this kind of adversity without a bunch of characters, and Cal had them, from Kingsley Okoroh, in his lengthiest and best turn as a collegian, to steady Sam Singer, aggressive Grant Mullins and unshakeable Charlie Moore. In those final seven minutes of regulation—without Rabb after he picked up his fourth foul until he returned for the final 2:36–the Bears would go from up five to down one twice, then tied again with 1:07 remaining. But those four, unsung Bears and a couple of others, kept Cal afloat, taking all the shots even after Rabb returned for the final minutes and all of overtime.
Yes, Rabb was the leading scorer with a career-best 25 points, but his offensive contribution in the final 12 plus minutes of Cal’s 68-59 overtime victory was five makes out of six from the free throw line. The pre-season All-American’s teammates did the rest.
“I told our guys I think this game made us a better team,” coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Often times, you don’t see that level of athleticism, length and physicality on the floor–with speed. Especially in the last maybe four minutes of the first half in transition they really got the best of us. Our transition defense, we didn’t do a great job.”
Louisiana Tech was a handful in all aspects with one exception: they didn’t shoot well at all (27 percent), and went the final 4:18 of overtime without scoring. Other than that, the Bulldogs competed, scratching their way back into the ballgame before halftime (as Martin described) and staying in it until overtime. Tech had success defending the mercurial freshman, Moore and their 1-3-1 zone look utilized in the second half was effective. And the Techsters didn’t budge with Rabb, taking the ball right at him, which eventually landed the 6’10” sophomore in foul trouble.
“They didn’t stop,” Rabb said. “They didn’t let up at all and they continued to push us and we responded. As long as we continue to respond when that pressure hits, that’s all that matters.”
The Bears won for the 24th consecutive time at home, a streak that’s currently the sixth best nationally, and a sure sign that this club has made itself comfortable at Haas Pavilion. But good fortune has its place in the streak, and it cropped up Wednesday when Qiydar Davis left early for Louisiana Tech with what is being called a serious knee injury, and Jacobi Boykins and DaQuan Bracey nearly joined Davis on the bench when they had physical issues as well.
But Cal soldiered on as well, finding out that Rooks will miss more than a month after knee surgery, and Bird remains out indefinitely with his back spasms. Bird would have been much needed against Tech with his length and shooting ability, but one after another, this group of Bears keep things together.
Okoroh was the biggest surprise, playing 40 minutes and fighting fatigue while coming up with nine points, 12 rebounds, five blocks and four assists. The excitable Okoroh couldn’t stop talking afterwards, but his play talked plenty during the game, catching Martin’s attention.
“That’s 40 minutes and he didn’t foul out,” Martin said of Okoroh. “And he does a great job keeping his hands high. (In the off-season) he spent a lot of time playing defense without fouling, keeping his hands high, moving his feet and he does a great job. And you don’t realize how big and physical he is until you’re up against him the whole night.”