By Morris Phillips
The whistles were unkind, but Isaiah Mobley was just plain rude to the Cal Bears on Saturday.
The Bears hot shooting from game’s opening tip carried them only so far in a frustrating 79-72 loss to No. 15 USC as Mobley and Ethan Anderson rallied the Trojans in a physical contest that was still up for grabs with two minutes remaining.
The 6’10” Mobley (24 points) and Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis (21 points, five assists) came up with career-best scoring performances to help navigate the Trojans through a slow start that saw them trail by 11 early, and lead by just two points with 2:21 left.
“Cal played outstanding offensive basketball,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “They made shot after shot and competed at a high level. They played well. It took everything we had.”
The Bears (9-12, 2-8) dropped their seventh straight contest, and still haven’t won on the road in six tries. Their 50 percent shooting, including eight made 3’s kept them in it, but the size disparity between the teams showed at the free throw line where the Trojans made 21 of 28. The free throws made and attempted were both season-bests for the hosts.
“We did a lot of good things, but we just didn’t close it and again we just got murdered at the free-throw line, and that’s the difference in the game,” coach Mark Fox said.
The Bears made eight of their first ten shots and led 20-9. They were still leading 27-18 and shooting 69 percent from the floor when USC responded. Ellis and Mobley contributed 11 points in USC’s 21-4 run that gave them a 39-31 lead with 1:40 to go before halftime.
The Trojans led 41-35 at the half despite Cal’s 54 percent shooting.
“I wish we could have held the lead there at the half. We just couldn’t quite do it under the circumstances,” said Fox, who sensed USC could grow tight if Cal maintained the lead, and threatened to deal USC consecutive losses after Stanford stunned them on Thursday.
Makale Foreman led Cal with 13 points in just 12 minutes on the floor. Jalen Celestine, Andre Kelly and Jordan Shepherd each scored 12.
Kelly embodied Cal’s biggest adjustment from Thursday’s drubbing at UCLA to their resurgence offensively at USC by taking quick-hitting entry passes to the basket before the taller Trojans could react. Kelly converted a jumper in the lane just 13 seconds into the second half to draw the Bears closer, down 41-37.
But Kelly wasn’t around for the finish. He suffered a leg or ankle injury with 11 minutes remaining and departed. Joel Brown also was absent for the game’s conclusion after he fouled out despite playing just 13 minutes.
Cal’s quest for a first win on the road, and a first against a ranked opponent continued despite the absences. Ellis’ consecutive baskets gave USC their biggest lead of eight, but Cal responded with five straight points to cut the deficit 63-60 with 7:08 remaining.
And again the Bears sliced the Trojans 67-60 advantage to two with consecutive baskets from Celestine and Foreman that brought the Bears within two points with 3:26 remaining.
In the end, the Bears couldn’t draw any closer. Grant Anticevich missed a pair of shots in the game’s final two minutes, finishing 3 of 13 from the floor as the team’s normal late game go-to guy couldn’t escape his shooting slump.
On Tuesday, Cal visits Stanford in a rescheduled contest that has the Bears playing five times in a 10-day stretch.