Piling Up The Points: Pac-12 champion Arizona looks NCAA Tournament-ready in 89-61 pasting of Cal

By Morris Phillips

Are the Arizona Wildcats the favorite to cut down the nets and win their second National Championship?

If the Cal Bears wanted to be the voice of dissent regarding UA’s chances, they unearthed very little evidence on Saturday afternoon.

No. 2 Arizona (28-3, 18-2) looked the part, shooting a sizzling 62 percent from the floor in dispatching Cal, 89-61 at the McKale Center in Tucson. It didn’t matter that Arizona was playing its fifth game in 10 days, or that they had little to play for after clinching the Pac-12 regular season title on Tuesday at USC.

But what may have most impressive was the Cats put up 89 points despite having to deal with Cal’s plodding pace, and a couple of impressive, but short-lived stretches of play by the Bears.

How’s that possible? Make shots, and Arizona did that in bunches.

Oumar Ballo, the transfer from No. 1 Gonzaga, led the Cats with 16 points on 7 for 7 shooting from the floor. Ballo was the biggest piece of Arizona’s octet of reserves that combined to shoot 18 of 24 from the floor and 7 for 7 from the foul line.

Those bench contributions were the biggest indicator of the hosts’ ability to impose their will. The team picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 before the season literarily outplayed expectations down to their 13th man. Coach Tommy Lloyd, who denied any celebrations prior to Saturday’s final buzzer couldn’t hold back his praise.

“These dudes are unbelievable,” Lloyd said. “What they gave me this year has inspired me to coach forever. They practice their ass off every day and they handle me being on them. It’s such a special group to be around.”

Cal was competitive for the game’s first six minutes, then a 9-0 run for Arizona gave evidence that the visitors were in for a rough ride. The Cats extended their lead to 36-17 on Christian Koloko’s layup with 4:21 remaining at which point the Bears settled in with a 14-4 run to end the half that had them within range, down 40-31 at the half.

But the second half saw Arizona shoot 65 percent and their crowd grow more jubilant with each made basket. Despite their starters playing sparingly UA led by 31 before winning by 28.

“We got a little fatigued and made some costly errors there in the second half defensively,” coach Mark Fox said. “Against a team with as much talent as they have, you cannot afford to do that.”

Jordan Shepherd led Cal (12-19, 5-15) with 16 points. Lars Thiemann had 12 points, five rebounds and Makale Foreman added 11. Thiemann was able to go despite being a gametime decision due to an injury, but starting guard Joel Brown was scratched due to a knee injury.

Cal opens the Pac-12 Tournament on Wednesday with their opponent to be determined after action concludes on Saturday night, with the Washington Huskies as the most likely opponent in a 7 versus 10 matchup.

Utah Nips Cal: Bears rally falls short in aggravating 60-58 loss

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–The general rule of thumb is when a Pac-12 opponent is trying to give you something, take it.

But on Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion, Utah kept giving and host Bears were slow to take, in a frustrating 60-58 loss.

The Utes survived despite going without a made field goal for six-and-half minutes in the second half and losing leading scorer Branden Carlson to injury. Cal got within two points twice, the first with 19 seconds remaining. But Lazar Stefanovic hit a pair of free throws before Jalen Celestine canned a three with five seconds remaining and Utah escaped.

The Bears missed eight of their last 10 shots, and went more than four minutes without a field goal before Celestine’s 3 in the final seconds. Cal shot just 39 percent from the floor, and missed nine of their 11 3-point attempts after halftime when they needed at least one big shot to draw them closer.

“At the end of the night we’ll look back and realize the consequences of some little mistakes throughout the game were great,” coach Mark Fox said. “We had some little mistakes that you look back that were just back-breaking in a two-point loss.”

Marco Anthony led Utah with 13 points, four rebounds and four assists.

“This season, leading up until now, we’ve been on that other side and there’s been some obstacles,” Anthony said. “But now we’re getting over that hump.”

Lars Thiemann led Cal with 16 points, and Kuany Kuany added 10, but they were the only two Bears to make more than half of their attempted shots.

Jordan Shepherd, who scored 33 in the win at Oregon, had 10 against the Utes and was limited by a hand injury suffered in that previous game. Shepard played 34 minutes Saturday but had just two made baskets. Fox touched on Cal’s limitations in playing without Andre Kelly, their leading scorer who has missed the last seven games with a season-ending ankle injury.

“The issue for us, when Lars goes out, we get small really fast,” Fox said.

Utah and Cal have amazing parallels starting with their 10-game losing streaks. Both teams broke their streaks by beating Oregon State less than a week apart, and have gone on to now record road sweeps with Cal winning twice in Oregon last week and Utah beating Stanford and now Cal this week.

Both teams are 4-13 in league play and tied for 10th place after Saturday’s contest. Each will have three more opportunities to come up with a fifth Pac-12 win or more. For Cal, their best shot at another conference victory comes this Saturday against visiting Stanford.

Bears Find Safe Passage On The Oregon Trail: Cal completes rare road sweep, shocks the Ducks, 78-64

By Morris Phillips

More than 200 years after the Oregon Trail was established, there were the Golden Bears trapping opponents, and trading their tarnished reputations for new ones draped in respect on Super Bowl weekend.

Yes, winning first at Oregon State, then shocking the NCAA-hopeful Oregon Ducks, 78-64 on Saturday afternoon demands some historical perspective for Cal hoops. The first win for the Bears in Eugene since 2014 was also was biggest win in coach Mark Fox’s tenure in Berkeley. The embattled coach’s remarks afterwards slyly interpreted the occasion.

“This isn’t about me,” Fox said. “This is about trying to re-establish Cal basketball. We came here expecting to win.”

Getting the opportunity to say what you wouldn’t dare say before you stop a crippling, 10-game losing streak is wholly satisfying. Getting to say it in a manner that defends your methods and personality even more so. Fox earned that opportunity on Saturday, and selflessly spread the wealth.

“During that stretch, you find out who’s with you and who’s not,” Fox said of the losing streak’s effect on his team. “And those kids in there never wavered.”

What the Bears accomplished on Saturday was nothing less than shocking in its manner and impact. After a leisurely start that saw the visitors fall behind 12-5, a timeout hatched a 24-0 run that had Cal in control, leading 29-12 with 7:19 remaining before the break. During the timeout, Fox reiterated to his club not to force the issue at the rim with the athletic Ducks, but instead take what Oregon’s zone look would afford.

“We said, take the midrange jumper,” Fox said of his message. “It’s still a good shot in basketball.”

Jordan Shepherd connected from the free throw line extended first, then less than a minute later, Kuany Kuany buried a jumper from nearly the same spot. Sam Alajiki hit a 3, then Lars Thiemann followed with a layup while fouled, and he hit the following free throw.

On the other end, Oregon (16-8, 9-4) committed a pair of turnovers, then missed two 3-pointers. Their Matthew Knight Arena crowd grew quiet, and Cal kept up the onslaught. Ultimately, the Ducks would misfire 10 consecutive shots, and the 3’s that had carried them–Oregon leads the Pac-12 in shooting percentage from distance at 36 percent–would be their worst enemy. Against Cal, the Ducks were 5 for 27 from distance.

“We came out and gave them easy baskets to start the game,” OU coach Dana Altman said. “They got rolling, and we could never get it stopped. And then on offense our ball movement wasn’t good, we missed some open shots and maybe tightened up a bit.”

Shepherd led the Bears (11-15, 4-11) with 33 points on 9 for 15 shooting from the floor. No one else was in double-digits for Cal, Grant Anticevich, Jalen Celestine and Makale Foreman each scored eight points.

The Bears enjoyed a healthy advantage on the glass early, limiting the Ducks to one shot on most possessions. The final rebounding numbers were 36-31 for Cal, but the first half, when the game was decided, greatly favored Cal.

The Bears shot 53 percent for the game, and didn’t allow themselves to be hurt by their 17 turnovers once they gained control.

On Thursday, the Bears get the unique opportunity to further reiterate their resurgence in a meeting with Colorado on Thursday at 6:30pm at Haas Pavilion.

High-Minded Hoopfest on the Hardwood: Stanford outslugs Cal, 57-50

By Morris Phillips

STANFORD, CA–Determined to avoid a bad loss, Stanford got an ugly win.

The Golden Bears got what was left–and not what they were looking for–a seventh, consecutive loss.

That’s what you get on a rare Tuesday in the Pac-12: succinct conclusions, ragged hoops and gutty performances. Throw in Cal’s signature deliberate pace, and this one was hardly memorable, but it was hard fought. The compressed schedule that has Cal (2-9, 9-13) playing five times in 10 days, along with Tuesday’s physical play clearly impacted them in a second half that was controlled by the hosts.

“I do think that we wore down a little bit in the second half,” coach Mark Fox said. “Certainly we missed Andre on the offensive end, but defensively we gave ourselves a chance.”

Powered by a 9-0 run early, Cal led for much of the first half. But the Cardinal’s defense and rebounding eventually became the story. Cal trailed by just one point at the break despite shooting 32 percent from the floor. Better shooting in the second half (38 percent) didn’t propel the Bears, instead they fell victim to Stanford’s insistence on getting the ball to the rim. Cal’s attempts to rally failed as they missed eight of nine 3-point attempts after halftime.

“We talked a lot about pace during halftime and just getting the ball moving, getting downhill off screens,” Stanford’s James Keefe said when asked what changed after the break. “But, I think coach gave us a good plan and we got it going from there. So, I guess you could say stagnant.”

Jaden Delaire and freshman Harrison Ingram led Stanford with 12 points a piece. Spencer Jones and Michael O’Connell each had nine points, and fifth starter Keefe best “embraced the grind” as described by coach Jerod Haase. Keefe finished with eight points and 11 rebounds, and a bunch of hustle plays in an uneven first half that could have saw the Cardinal fall into a hole.

Andre Kelly was absent for the Bears, as a result of his leg injury suffered on Saturday at USC. Lars Thiemann responded with the lengthiest and most impressive outing of his career with 11 points, six rebounds in 32 minutes.

“Lars really did an admirable job,” Fox said. “I was surprised he could go 30 minutes. He’s been our leading scorer and rebounder in practice all year. He just needs confidence to let the game slow down, and that’ll help him get better.”

Jordan Shepherd led Cal with 15 points, but missed 12 of his 17 shots from the floor. Grant Anticevich was reinstated to the starting lineup, but his seven points, seven rebounds weren’t impactful enough, especially in Kelly’s absence.

Washington visits Cal on Thursday, the Bears next opportunity to end a losing streak that has them currently 10th in the conference race ahead of one-win clubs, Oregon State and Utah.

Bedeviled in Berkeley: Arizona State sees their mastery of Cal end in a 74-50 defeat at Haas Pavilion

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Arizona State figured to be stuck in traffic dealing with the nationally-ranked Bruins and Trojans in Los Angeles this weekend. Instead, the Sun Devils surfaced in serene, socially distanced Haas Pavilion and got their forks handed to them in an very unceremonious manner by the Cal Bears.

Oh, the irony? Yes, the irony.

The suddenly ascendant Bears put together their best 40 minutes of basketball this season, and throttled ASU, 74-50, bringing an end to the Sun Devils’ seven-game win streak in the series between the schools.

“We did defend well, we did play very well on offense, and we did rebound it pretty well,” coach Mark Fox said. “So we did a lot a really good things and it’s a complete performance for us, but not as complete as it could have been. But you know what, our team competed well and I was really proud of them for that.”

Competitive? Complete performance? Suddenly the Bears–undefeated at home, and miraculously avoiding the pitfalls of COVID protocols–aren’t the club picked to finish last in the Pac-12. Instead they’re credible defensively, and meticulously prepared. Arizona State found out right away as Cal zoomed to a 41-23 halftime lead fueled by a 7-0 advantage in made 3-pointers. Fox hated that his Bears squandered some free throw opportunities early, missing five of their first seven, but the disparity beyond the arc was undeniable.

“It was the difference in the ballgame,” Fox said.

Cal suffered some hiccups in the first five minutes of the second half, but took off again after that, maintaining their big lead and unleashing some new weapons in the process.

Lars Thiemann, literally Cal’s biggest project, showed out by hanging near the rim and making himself available for easy shot attempts. The seven-footer routinely fumbled as many passes as he caught previously. But hard work has paid off. Fox spoke of the hours Thiemann has put in, not to mention the reminders the Cal coaching staff provided during breaks in Sunday’s game. Thiemann came up with all seven of his points in the second half, allowing Cal to ultimately pad their lead, while giving them a clear, size advantage on the smallish Sun Devils.

Sam Alajiki, who previously wowed the Bears coaching staff with his defensive presence, also contributed to the Bears’ hot stretch. Alajiki entered the game, and immediately canned a three, stretching Cal’s lead to 52-33 with 11:45 remaining.

The Bears were led by Jordan Shepherd with 16 points, Andre Kelly added 13, and Grant Anticevich had 10 points, 10 rebounds. Arizona State got 17 points from sophomore D.J. Horn, but no other ASU player tallied more than nine as their horrible 32 percent shooting from the floor doomed the visitors from the start.

“We know it’s not one guy who’s going to do it all for us,” Kelly said. “If one guy is not necessarily having his best night then we have a good deep team so a lot of people can step up and make good plays,” Kelly said. 

Cal shot 51 percent from the floor and outrebounded ASU 38-32. The Bears stayed undefeated at home, and improved to 9-5, 2-1 in the Pac-12 with the win. And now the Bears get their shot at the top ten Southern California schools both of whom have been impacted by COVID and will visit Berkeley during a compacted schedule of three games in five days.

“We need four times the number of people to show up,” Fox said while acknowledging the 2,974 fans that showed up Sunday, including the coach’s wife and daughter who were pressed into duty as staffers to aid the hastily arranged home game.

Cal hosts USC on Thursday at 8pm, and UCLA on Saturday at 5pm at Haas Pavilion.

Bengals Bashed: Cal gets a rare laugher in 72-46 win over Idaho State

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–Defense wins championships, and it also wins December non-conference games against overmatched opponents.

Don’t leave home without it, or make yourself at home with it.

Cal’s 72-46 victory over Idaho State was all defense after halftime, as the Bears ran away from Idaho while limiting the visitors to five made baskets after the break.

“We know as disjointed as our roster has been with injury that offensively it’s going to take a while to develop some chemistry,” coach Mark Fox said. “But I really wanted us to play hard defensively, and I thought in the second half we really showed that.”

The Bears benefitted in a stretch of 12 consecutive ISU misses that allowed Cal to stretch their lead to 49-30 with 11 minutes remaining. Idaho State shot an uncompetitive 28 percent from the floor in dropping an eighth consecutive game after opening the season with a win over NAIA Eastern Oregon.

Fox jumbled his starting lineup by promoting Makale Foreman and Sam Alajiki at the expense of Kuany Kuany and Joel Brown. While Kuany is out while dealing with an ankle injury, Brown played his normal minutes as a reserve. But the biggest beneficiary may have been Lars Thiemann, who came up with a career-best 12 points, three rebounds and a block in 19 minutes of action. The 7’1″ center’s presence gave the Bears defense force, and offensively his points were part of Cal’s decisive 42-16 edge in points in the paint.

“When he comes into the game he’s always capable of that,” guard Jordan Shepherd said of Thiemann. “We see it every day in practice.”

Marsalis Roberson, the freshman from Bishop O’Dowd in Oakland, made his collegiate debut, playing a couple of minutes in each half.

Idaho State was led by Robert Ford III with 11 points. Tarik Cool played the most minutes, and put up 14 shot attempts, but he couldn’t get it going, finishing with eight. The Bengals were outrebounded 44-32.

“We are feeling pretty beat up right now,” coach Ryan Looney said. “It has been a tough stretch and there a lot of things we need to do better.”

Andre Kelly had 12 points for Cal, and Grant Anticevich put up 10 points and 10 rebounds. Jordan Shepherd had 11 points on 4 of 10 shooting.

The Bears have won five, consecutive home games and at 5-5 will be afforded an opportunity to move above. 500 when Santa Clara visits Haas Pavilion on Saturday evening.

Bears blow an opportunity for a brighter Christmas, lose to Boston College, 64-60 in the final minutes

By Morris Phillips

SAN FRANCISCO–Travel-weary Boston College afforded the Cal Bears a fast start. The Bears in turn kept the door open, and allowed the Eagles a chance to creep back into the contest.

In the end, it wasn’t an even swap.

BC made the adjustments in their offensive attack, got nastier on the glass, and pulled out a much-needed 64-60 win over Cal at the Chase Center on Saturday. The meeting of struggling Power 5 conference teams went to the visitors from the East Coast and they couldn’t have been happier.

“In the second half, we played smarter,” Boston College coach Jim Christian said.

The Bears have dropped six of eight after a 4-0 start to the season. Christian and his Eagles won their fourth straight after losing five of six. Both teams craved a win, but Boston College kept the mistakes to a minimum down the stretch.

“I thought we were just settling for threes,” Christian said. “We were taking the first three available to start the game. We hit a couple early, which sometimes is a bad thing. In the second half we played really smart.”

Cal led by 12 early, then they went scoreless for the final seven minutes plus of the half, and saw their lead sliced to three at the break. They seemed to take control again leading 48-37 with 11:43 remaining. But their points in the paint, and transition opportunities slowed, and BC quietly creeped back in.

“You can’t play 34 or 36 minutes,” Coach Mark Fox admitted. “You have to play a great segment of quality minutes, and tonight we didn’t do that.”

Fox cited six missed free throws in the opening 20 minutes as a major factor in the loss. Those misses kept Cal from extending their double-digit lead, according to Fox, and that factored heavily into BC’s initial comeback.

Neither team accomplished anything of note from distance. Both teams missed eight of nine 3-point attempts before the half. Cal controlled the paint, getting strong, offensive games from Andre Kelly and Lars Thiemann. The 7’0″ center Thiemann enjoyed his best game in a Cal uniform eight points, nine rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. But Cal’s turnover count mounted (11 of their 16 turnovers came after halftime) and their shot selection deteriorated.

“I should have made sure we finished this game out–as captain and one of our leaders. That didn’t happen tonight. Obviously, I’m frustrated with myself,” said Matt Bradley, who led the Bears 21 points, but missed six of his seven attempts from distance.

The Bears now turn their attention towards their final non-conference contest against Harvard on December 29. Cal is trying to avoid a third, consecutive last place finish in the Pac-12, and they’ve now become the first conference school to lose six times this season.

Meanwhile, the conference continues to trend upward despite the top three programs–Arizona, Washington and Oregon–all losing to highly-regarded Gonzaga. While Cal has six losses, seven other Pac-12 schools have lost just once or twice, including Stanford, who won the opening contest of the Al Attles Classic against San Diego 62-59. The Cardinal are 11-1, their best start to a season in a decade.

CHRISTIAN’S ROUGH WEEK: BC coach Jim Christian hobbled up and down his team’s sideline on crutches with a pained look on his face, the aftermath of ankle microfracture surgery he had on Monday in Boston.

Christian conceded the cross-country flight to San Francisco was painful. He anticipated the flight back also will be agonizing.

The former Cornell coach retained his sense of humor however when explaining what led to the surgery.

“I injured my ankle in a dunk contest,” he said.