This Time The Road is Kind: Cal whips WSU in Pullman, 66-57

By Morris Phillips

The Cal Bears had to take their most arduous trip, and find the most vulnerable opponent–in a rare Wednesday night contest–to end their road woes.

No need to ask: they’ll take it.

Paris Austin, Andre Kelly and Matt Bradley combined for 46 points in Cal’s 66-57 win over Washington State, their first win away from Haas Pavilion this season. The Bears had dropped all six of their previous road contests as well as three, neutral site games in November and December.

“For this team, no one gave them a chance to have much success so any time that they have some I want them to enjoy it and understand how they found that success so they can build on it,” coach Mark Fox said.

“Hopefully tonight they can enjoy this victory and look back and see why we won the game so it can happen again.”

Since losing their final, three non-conference games, then their Pac-12 opener to Stanford, Cal has won five of 12, equaling their number of conference wins the last two seasons combined. Beating WSU almost insures they won’t finish last in the Pac-12 this season with five games remaining.

The Bears built a 17-point, first half lead only to see the Cougars get within six points with less than two minutes remaining. Leading 60-54, Cal converted six free throw attempts to close it out.

Isaac Bonton, WSU’s starting point guard and second-leading scorer missed the game with a leg injury. Benton’s absence left WSU out of sync offensively, especially leading scorer C.J. Elleby, who missed 14 of his 18 shot attempts.

 

Running With the Devils: Bears acquit themselves quite respectably in 80-75 loss to Arizona State

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–A high-scoring game is the last thing the Cal Bears want to be involved in.

Unless, you’re a Cal fan and ticket holder, then your attitude is probably why not?

The Bears’ rebuilding process that landed them in the Pac-12 basement in 2018 and 2019 has them traversing the bottom tier of Division I point-producers in 2020. Coming into Cal’s home game against Arizona State on Sunday, the Bears ranked 335th (out of 350) in scoring offense averaging a bare bones 62.2 points per game.

With the notable exceptions of defending National Champion Virginia (ranked 347th) and NCAA-worthy Wisconsin (302), it’s the bottom of a list teams would rather avoid. Littered with struggling squads across Division I, it’s a place where anxiety abounds. Players doubt their abilities, coaches like Shaka Smart of Texas (325) find themselves on the hot seat, and ticket holders check out faster than they check in.

For Cal, hosting red-hot ASU, averaging 77 points a game over a four-game win streak that has the Sun Devils dreaming of the NCAA Tournament, seemed like more bad news in a season that’s already been trying enough.

But it wasn’t. The Bears battled Arizona State into the final minute in a 80-75 loss that turned on a late ASU surge and the brillance of Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year candidate Remy Martin.

Martin had 22 points–15 in the second half–as ASU built an eight-point lead with three minutes remaining and held on to win for the seventh time in eight games. The Bears shot 48 percent in the second half–and scored nine points in the final 45 seconds–to make it a close shave, and a watchable, competitive affair.

“Sometimes in defeats you play well but we didn’t win, which is what we came here to do,” coach Mark Fox admitted.

Martin, the senior from Los Angeles, and arguably college basketball’s most prominent Filipino-American player, has scored in double figures in all 12 conference games. In nine of those, including Sunday, he’s scored at least 20.

“He hits the deep 3, he hit the shot off one leg and stopped, just really high level of difficulty shots but he get so much attention from defenses it’s really never easy for him to score too often,” coach Bobby Hurley said of Martin. “He continues to surprise me, the things I see him do out there.”

The Sun Devils achieved a conference road sweep for the first time in a decade with the win. ASU also beat Stanford 74-69 on Thursday. The rare, but also quirky, occurrence happens rarely, just not normally only once a decade. This season in the Pac-12, only ASU and Arizona (both occurrences this weekend) have accomplished the feat.

“I know its been talked about quite a bit but it’s not really a thing for me,” Hurley said of ASU’s first sweep since January 2010 over the Oregon schools. “It’s more where we stand right now, just can ill afford to lose, and got to keep it rolling the way we’ve been.”

Matt Bradley led Cal with 20 of his 22 points after halftime. Grant Anticevich added 18 points, eight rebounds and Paris Austin had 17. The Bears (10-15, 4-8) have lost seven of nine since sweeping the Washington schools, but remain in a tight grouping of five schools, placed seventh through 11th, for seeding in the upcoming conference tournament.

Cal visits Pullman, Washington and Washington State on Thursday night.

 

 

Cal Shut Down: Utah comes up with season-best defensive effort in 60-45 win over the Bears

By Morris Phillips

When your best player makes shots winning comes easier. When that best player also shuts down the opponent’s main guy, winning is almost assured.

It was for Utah on Timmy Allen on Saturday at the Huntsman Center.

The Utes leading scorer came up with 14 of his team-best 20 points down the stretch, as well as shutting down Cal’s Matt Bradley in Utah’s 60-45 home win.

“I was just more strong today,” said Allen. “Just played without stress and played stress free, truthfully.”

Bradley led Cal with 13 points, but missed eight of his 13 shots. The Bears shot 32 percent from the field and scored 52 points or fewer for the sixth time this season. Cal’s leading scorer was the only Bear to finish in double-digits, starters Paris Austin and Kareem South combined to miss 15 of their 18 shot attempts.

“They were the aggressors and we didn’t finish enough plays,” said coach Mark Fox. “You have to score when you’re on the road and we didn’t do that tonight.”

The Utes improved to 10-1 at home in a season in which they’ve beaten Kentucky, Washington, Nevada and Minnesota, but have struggled to string wins together. One certainty is their play against Cal and Stanford: the Utes completed the home sweep of the Bay Area schools for the fifth year in a row.

“I thought we had a good game plan for both of the Bay Area schools, and I think we’ve made some good strides in our pick-and-roll coverage,” coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “Our bigs did a really good job. I thought our guards were really solid too.”

The Bears trailed by 11 at the half, and blew an opportunity to climb back in the game when the Utes missed eight of their first nine shots to start the second half. Instead, the Bears went cold, going scoreless for more than three minutes, and Utah seized control.

Cal’s 16 made baskets on just seven assists were both season lows for a Utah opponent.

The Bears return to Haas Pavilion on Thursday for a meeting with Arizona, then they’ll see Arizona State on Saturday. Both Arizona schools were home losers on Saturday with the Wildcats falling to UCLA, and the Sun Devils losing to USC.

 

 

 

 

 

Road Remains Rough: Cal suffers narrow loss at Colorado, falls to 0-9 away from home

By Morris Phillips

No. 24 Colorado didn’t like the way they played, but they were satisfied with how they finished in a 71-65 win at home on Thursday night.

Cal coach Mark Fox said he and his coaching staff would examine how they do things approaching road contests after dropping the first eight this season, but that didn’t change things at the CU Events Center. The Bears were tied at the half, and trailed by just two with 5:16 remaining, but fell victim to the Buffs late run.

“They sped the game up,” said Paris Austin, who had 15 points for the Bears.

“We found a way,” coach Tad Boyle said of his CU squad’s fifth consecutive win over Cal. “The sign of a somber locker room after a league win tells you that we have pretty high expectations of ourselves.”

For Cal, battling a ranked Pac-12 team in their environment in a game that was decided in the final minutes represented a sign of improvement. Of their nine road and neutral site losses, only a 64-60 defeat to Boston College at the Chase Center had been by single digits prior to this one. The Bears, coming off winning four of five at home, continue to improve, even if it doesn’t always show in the win column.

Matt Bradley led the Bears with 17 points, Andre Kelly had 12 on six of seven shooting. The Bears shot 63 percent from the floor in the first half–a season best–but couldn’t get keep the Buffs under wraps at the defensive end. In the final five minutes, Colorado was efficient and quick, scoring 19 of their 71-point total down the stretch.

Not familiar with the ascension of the Buffaloes? You’re not alone. Quietly, Boyle has fashioned a consistent contender in the Pac-12, and Thursday’s win matches the best 23-game start to a season in their program’s history, matching that of the 1968-69 Colorado team that won the Big 8. Sophomore Cliff Meely was Colorado’s star player that season, a power forward who would be named an All-American as a senior and a first round pick of the Rockets during the summer they moved from San Diego to Houston.

The Bears (10-12, 4-5) travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah on Saturday at 3pm.

Kings outwork the Wolves, then survive the fourth quarter in 113-109 win

SACRAMENTO–The NBA trade deadline can hatch some absurd scenarios and head-scratching juxtapositions, a couple of which found their way into Golden 1 Center on Monday night.

The lottery-bound Kings and Timberwolves are unlikely to stand still come Thursday afternoon, but you have to wonder what it is either club will come up with to swing a deal, let alone significantly affect their futures.

As an aside, the Kings enjoyed a rare winner on the hardwood, lapping Minnesota early only to hold on late in a 113-109 win, sending the visitors to a telling, 12th consecutive loss. Minnesota’s centerpiece big man, Karl Anthony-Towns picked this depth of losing before the game to express his displeasure with All-Star voters who bypassed Towns in the game’s final vote tallies, prompting him to say, “It’s unfortunate this year’s All-Star Game won’t have the 24 best players in the NBA.”

“It’s about being in the NBA finals, being in the playoffs, winning games,” Towns said in trying to rationalize his thought process at this particular moment. “That’s how you build a legacy. All-Star is cool and stuff for the fans, but I’m here for the people in this locker room.”

Towns who has drawn interest from the Warriors and Celtics as a finishing piece to their title aspirations might not be sending championship signals with his play. Minnesota is 0-16 in the last 16 games Towns has been available, and the team’s defensive rating plummets with the big man on the floor.

Regardless, the Wolves would prefer to hold on to their biggest asset which is how forward Robert Covington’s name is heard most frequently in trade talks. But reportedly, the Wolves are demanding two first rounders in exchange for their 6’8″ defensive whiz.

And how’s that discourse going? Well, on Monday, Covington looked distracted, missing seven of his first eight shots, including three air balls as Minnesota fell behind by 18 points before the half.

For the Kings, Dewayne Dedmon returned from two days away from the team with an illness to turn in his most inspired performance as King: 12 rebounds, five blocks (including a big one on Andrew Wiggins with 20 seconds remaining and the Kings nursing a five-point lead) four assists, four points. Dedmon’s previous trade demands have relented, and now with Marvin Bagley Jr. and Richaun Holmes still unavailable, the journeyman center seems to have a place in the Sacramento rotation.

“He did a lot for us today, altering shots, saving possessions,” said De’Aaron Fox of Dedmon.

Fox led the Kings with 31 points, 5 assists. The Kings shot 51 percent from the floor for the game, including 14 of 27 from three. Towns led Minnesota with 22 points.

“We just got to keep pounding the rock,” said coach Ryan Saunders, who hasn’t endured any speculation about his job status despite 26 losses in the Wolves’ last 31 games. “Eventually it breaks. You just keep pounding the rock and that’s not an empty line because if you just keep staying with it, keep being diligent in your preparation and do things the right way, eventually good things will come.”

Bogdan Bogdanovich contributed a super efficient game for the Kings with 23 points on just seven shot attempts along with three assists and just one turnover in 31 minutes. Could he be the missing piece in Laker land? Maybe, but why would the Kings deal one of their prized assets at the moment he’s establishing himself as a starting NBA combo guard, or be so helpful to the rival Lakers even if a trade yields Kyle Kuzma?

The Kings have won four of six, after a six-game losing skid, and have three days of preparation–and two days of trade deadline anticipation–before hosting the Miami Heat on Friday.

 

 

Standing Firm: Big charge call in final seconds allows Cal to slip past OSU, 69-67

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, CA–The youthful Cal Bears and their coaching staff didn’t know what to expect. After two, last place finishes in the Pac-12, a coaching change, and a roster with as many additions as departures, they knew they probally weren’t going to be great, and that they didn’t want to be last-place bad.

Whatever their destination, the Bears are starting to take control of the process, one game at a time.

“You just get addicted to the next game,” coach Mark Fox said after his Bears surprised Oregon State in the last game, making the winning plays late in a 69-67 victory at Haas Pavilion on Saturday.

Hardly on a last place trajectory, the Bears are finding ways to win (at home). Beating OSU evened Cal’s conference record at 4-4, good enough for a sixth-place tie with UCLA.

“To come out of the week with a couple victories for this group is progress,” Fox said. “But we’re just going to try to win this next one and see how many we can tally up.”

In winning four of seven–after losing six of seven–the Bears have improved dramatically at the defensive end while getting more varied contributions on the offensive end. Clearly an incremental process, all seven of Cal’s most recent victories are by seven points or less, the last three by 3, 2 and 2.

And what normally constitutes last minute heroics doesn’t apply at Cal: the Stanford game swung on a blocking foul and two made Paris Austin free throws. On Saturday, leading scorer Matt Bradley drew a charging call on Tres Tinkle with seven seconds remaining with the Beavers trying to grab the lead.

Looking for a critical basket or a momentum-changing dunk? There wasn’t one. Instead Cal turned a close game by limiting Oregon State to six points over the final 5:04. For the game, OSU shot 19 of 52, and missed 15 of their 20 3-point attempts.

For Cal, Bradley got it done by picking his spots, both on the floor and during junctures of the ballgame, scoring a team-best 23 points. Andre Kelly hurt OSU with his activity on the offensive glass, adding 14 points, six rebounds. Grant Anticevich contributed eight points and 11 rebounds.

Neither team created much separation as the game featured 11 ties and 13 lead changes. Tinkle spearheaded an 8-0 run for the Beavers to close the first half, but OSU didn’t sustain that surge with 32 percent shooting after the break.

Cal travels to No. 20 Colorado on Thursday looking to win their first true, road game after five losses.

 

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.

Kings come back to earth on return to Sacramento in 120-100 loss to the Thunder

By Morris Phillips

SACRAMENTO–Two segments of basketball–one exhilarating, one dreadful–separated only by the Kings’ successful, five-minute overtime on Monday in Minneapolis, go along way to explaining the lost 2019-2020 season for Sacramento.

In the final 5:42 of regulation on Monday, the Kings scored 33 points, making shots from everywhere, in belief they could overcome an insurmountable deficit against the Timberwolves. They did, tying the game in regulation, and winning it in overtime, 133-129.

The comeback would mark the first time in the previous 24 seasons that a team had overcome a 17-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining in regulation or overtime and won. Simply, on Monday the Kings accomplished what 8,000 plus teams over a quarter century could not: the comeback of comebacks.

Then on Wednesday back at Golden 1 Center–and after a stirring tribute to Kobe Bryant before the opening tip–the Kings reverted, scoring just 16 points in the first quarter on the way to a 20-point loss to the Thunder. The Kings were in it, tied at 14 with 3:58 remaining, then finished the quarter with only two more points, on their way to trailing for the game’s final 40 minutes in a sleepy loss tied closely to a substandard defensive effort that saw the Thunder guards feast on their Sacramento counterparts.

“They were more physical than us, they hit us, they outrebounded us, got the shots they wanted, and that can’t be acceptable for how we’re going to play the game of basketball.”

In Monday’s finish, the Kings hit seven 3-pointers, and got stops–a bunch of them. On Wednesday, the Kings were 1 of 9 from three in the first quarter and watched the visitors–especially from the guard’s standpoint–operate as if they were a basketball ballet troop.

Chris Paul, a close friend of Kobe Bryant, returned to action after missing the Thunder’s previous game to decompress and grieve. The break brought to light what a great season the veteran guard is having in Oklahoma City after his unceremonious dismissal from Houston. Paul’s absence was his first time he hasn’t played and started for the Thunder, a streak of 47 games. On Wednesday, with a heavy heart, it was back to work and the veteran was on top of his game, dissecting the Kings like a surgeon.

“He never really got into a flow from the standpoint of his own, personal offense, but he really managed to manipulate that game in the third quarter. He was finding guys, he was making the right decisions. He got guys open shots,” coach Billy Donovan said of Paul.

All four Thunder guards that saw significant minutes put up good numbers facing a Sacramento defense that didn’t fight through screens and wasn’t the least bit disruptive. Paul finished with nine points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. Luguentz Dort, the undrafted rookie playing in place of the injured Terrance Ferguson, put up a career-best 23 points with five 3-pointers. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the key, off-season acquisition with Russell Westbrook and Paul George departing, had 17 points, seven assists and seven rebounds. Dennis Schroeder came off the bench to add 24 points and nine assists.

Worried about the viability of the Kings’ core of Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovich and De’Aaron Fox going forward with all three likely to earn big deals to stay in Sacramento?

You should be. Defensively, the trio is nowhere near where they need to be. Picture a youthful Steve Nash getting beat at the point of attack and multiply by three. Not pretty especially with the Kings getting a look at Bogdanovich starting along Fox with Hield’s demotion. Again, all three put up decent offensive numbers on Wednesday, but their double-digit minus, plus/minus numbers said it all.

The Kings get a rough, back-to-back with the Clippers up next Thursday night at Staples Center, the first game at Staples Center since Bryant’s death.