The Haas Pavilion crowd let out a roar as Allen Crabbe’s 3-pointer hit nothing but net as time expired in the first half.
His buzzer beater had given the Cal men’s basketball team a two-point lead going into intermission, a small cushion after a neck-and-neck first half on Monday night.
The only thing was, the No. 24 Bears weren’t playing a Pac-12 foe in Arizona or UCLA, or even a well-known nonconference squad. Cal was playing McNeese State, and up to that final shot, Cal was getting outplayed.
The Cowboys from Lake Charles, La., in Southland conference territory, had been leading most of the first half behind their guard tandem of senior Patrick Richard and junior Dontae Cannon.
Through 40 minutes, though, the Bears’ own guard tandem of Crabbe and senior Jorge Gutierrez won out, as the duo totaled 46 points to power Cal to a hard-fought 73-57 victory.
“I just felt in the first half we weren’t playing as hard,” Crabbe said. “We talked about it in halftime, we came out sluggish and taking our opponent lightly.”
The Bears (6-1) shot a paltry 40 percent from the field in the first half and missed six of their eight free throws. Crabbe and senior forward Harper Kamp, who last year shot 80.4 and 81.6 percent, respectively, from the line, went a collective 0-for-5 in the first 20 minutes.
Point guard Brandon Smith air balled a jumper, and starting forward Richard Solomon missed all four of his field goals in the first period.
Meanwhile, Richard and Cannon were fueling McNeese State’s upset bid. The duo combined for 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting in the first half and finished with 33.
“We need to start games off better than this,” Solomon said. “We can’t take our opponent for granted.”
It took Cal more than seven minutes to take its first lead of the contest. But after Gutierrez rebounded Richard’s miss with eight seconds to go and threw it up court to Crabbe for a long three to close out the half, the Cowboys (3-3) never led again.
“I guess it gave us a little boost,” Crabbe said of the buzzer beater. “It got everyone pumped.”
The Bears’ guards were more aggressive against McNeese State’s 2-3 zone in the second half, continually attacking the paint for close-in banks and nifty layups. Cal’s jumpers also started to fall: The squad shot 62.5 percent in the second half, and Crabbe went 3-for-5 from long range.
Every time the Bears started to really pull away, though, the Cowboys responded. Gutierrez and Crabbe hit back-to-back 3-pointers at around the 11-minute mark to bring the margin up to 18. But McNeese State guard Jeremie Mitchell answered with a three of his own, and Richard followed with a power drive for the basket and the foul.
“You make this assumption based on the name of the school,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “We can’t fall into that trap that says we’re supposed to beat them.”