Cal escapes with 53-49 win over USC

It’s a down year for USC and a down year for the Pac-12. But it’s still conference play, and the Cal men’s basketball team escaped with a 53-49 win over the Trojans on Thursday evening to open the Pac-12 season.

The Bears held a comfortable lead most of the game, but USC cut the margin to one with less than a minute to go at Haas Pavilion. Jorge Gutierrez’s shot attempt was blocked by 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon, but he swatted it to Cal’s Allen Crabbe. The sophomore guard let it fly as the shot clock went off and got fouled with eight seconds remaining.

“I just told myself to calm down and take my time with each one,” Crabbe said.

He nailed all three to give Cal a four-point lead — and the game.

“It doesn’t matter what I saw,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “There was a foul; that is a veteran crew of good officials.”

It never looked like the game would come down to a trip to the free throw line. The Bears (11-3, 1-0 in the Pac-12) scored the first points of the game and never trailed. Senior forward Harper Kamp scored eight of Cal’s first 12 points to give his squad an early 12-6 lead. A few moments later, Gutierrez — who led the team with 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists — hit a 3-pointer to put the Bears up nine.

Despite shooting 59.1 percent from the field in the first half and holding USC (5-8, 0-1) to 33.3 percent shooting and just one 3-pointer, Cal was only up 31-19 at the break — a result of the Trojans’ work on the glass. USC had 10 offensive rebounds in the half and finished with 18.

“We knew going into it that USC is a really tough team to rebound against,” said Kamp, who grabbed three boards in 27 minutes of play. “They’re gonna push you in the back. They set the tone early … Tonight it hurt us and kept them in the game.”

It wasn’t just Dedmon and his 7-foot backup James Blasczyk using their substantial height advantage. Cal was hurt just as much by 6-foot-6 forwards Aaron Fuller and Garrett Jackson, who combined for 15 rebounds and as many offensive boards (nine) as the entire Cal squad.

“If you don’t block off away from the basket and get into a jumping contest, you’re not gonna win,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery.

Crabbe opened the second half with his only 3-pointer, and by the 13:36 mark the Bears had opened up a 16-point lead. The Trojans chipped away at it though. Over the next five minutes, they went on a 10-2 run, more a result of their physical defense than their offense.

The margin hovered around 10 until Maurice Jones decided to take matters into his own hands. The 5-foot-7 sophomore, who scored a game-high 17 points, hit three consecutive 3-pointers, the first one from miles away.

“That’s how they play, and you got to give Kevin (O’Neill) credit,” Montgomery said. “They never quit. It’s kind of, in his mind, only a matter of time before Jones hits shots.”

His third trey cut it to three, and Fuller scored a basket to make the score, 50-49. Cal had made only six of its 13 free throws as Crabbe stepped to the line moments later, but he sealed the win for the Bears.

Cal returns to action on Saturday to take on UCLA.