For over seven minutes, the No. 24 Cal basketball team couldn’t shake off UCSD. Yes, that other state campus, the one with a Division II hoops squad that finished 11-17 last season.
The Tuesday night exhibition at Haas Pavilion wasn’t supposed to unfold this way, the host trailing by as many as seven points. It was a game that wouldn’t count, a chance for the Bears to tune up their game and preen before fans — with UCSD playing the unfortunate practice dummy. But for seven minutes too long, Cal’s eventual 88-53 blowout appeared slightly in doubt.
Popular Pac-12 champion pick? Please. Cal was closer to the squad that mustered five first-half points against Notre Dame last November. While the Tritons were hitting half their shots, the Bears struggled for even a third. No one could finish inside the paint, and the Pac-10’s second-deadliest team from long range last year made the rim look pinhole-wide.
“We settled on our first shot on our first pass. Didn’t get any continuity,” said head coach Mike Montgomery. They needed to “get out the nerves,” starting guard Jorge Gutierrez added.
Then Justin Cobbs began playing like a man possessed.
The Minnesota transfer, who sat out last season due to NCAA rules, was a key cog. With the score still close, he was responsible for a stretch of seven consecutive Cal points, draining 16 of his game-high 17 points before the halftime buzzer. He absorbed contact several times, sinking layups and going to the line for another point on three occasions — the last of these a double-teamed effort that gave him a poor view of the basket. His teammates shot 10-of-29 in the first-half, so he went 5-of-9, adding the Bears’ first 3-pointer for good measure.
Feeble as the competition was, Cobbs’ strong showing as a scoring option gives Montgomery a chance to test a still-fluid rotation. After the win, the coach hinted at the possibility of playing Cobbs and Brandon Smith in the backcourt while playing Gutierrez and shooting guard Allen Crabbe up as forwards.
“He knows how to run the team,” Gutierrez said of Cobbs, who spelled Smith at the point in his debut. “He knows us.”
The starters returned to kick off the second half, but they didn’t need Cobbs’ fireworks anymore. The defense locked down, forced turnovers and generally abused an inferior Triton squad. UCSD often bobbled the ball away without much pressure, but Cal also jumped several passing lanes to come up with nine second-half steals. The steals turned into fast breaks, the fast breaks into dunks and alley-oops.
Standard scene: Crabbe nabs the ball and tosses it upcourt to Smith. Smith whips a pass crosscourt to forward Harper Kamp, who flips it up to a soaring Richard Solomon. Three minutes later, Crabbe follows with his own emphatic slam.
Roughly 10 minutes after the Tritons held a one-point lead, the Bears suddenly found themselves ahead by 27. UCSD never came within 20 points again.
The final 20 minutes also featured a promising performance from true freshman David Kravish. The pale, lanky freshman paced the Bears with eight rebounds, adding a team-high five blocks in his 16 minutes on the court.
“That’s kind of what David does,” Montgomery said, adding that he expects Kravish to continue contributing. “He has a knack for being at the right place at the right time”
Guard Alex Rossi, a shooter who could potentially spread the offense, is still bothered by the same lower ab injury that held him out last season. Montgomery said the redshirt freshman is having a “tough time” and will not return soon.