First-place Bears look to inch closer to Pac-12 title

Justin Cobbs and the Bears face Oregon to begin their final home stand of the season.
Gracie Malley/File
Justin Cobbs and the Bears face Oregon to begin their final home stand of the season.

The Cal basketball team has already accomplished significant feats this season: The Bears have already posted 20 wins with five games left and swept the L.A. schools for the first time since 1959.

When Cal faces Oregon at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night at Haas Pavilion, the first-place Bears can come one step closer to securing their second conference crown in three years in the log-jammed Pac-12 race. The Bears hold a tiebreak over Washington, while the Ducks are currently tied for third with Arizona and Colorado.

Despite all of its success this season, Cal (20-6, 10-3 in the Pac-12) has yet to establish itself as a team that can prevail in tight games. The Bears’ only notable down-to-the-wire victory was a pivotal 69-66 triumph at Washington a month ago, but Cal has also fallen by four points or fewer in three of its six losses.

On the other hand, close contests are Oregon’s specialty. The Ducks (18-7, 9-4) are 11-2 in games decided by fewer than 10 points, and 4-1 in games that come down to fewer than five points. That sort of execution late in the game has allowed a team projected to finish fifth in the Pac-12 to sit just one game back of first with just five games left in the regular season.

“It’s probably pretty important if they can beat us,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “They’re kind of quietly, maybe under the radar, maybe not there … (Beating Cal) could go a long way to helping them, plus road wins — gotta be important.”

The Ducks faced another pivotal matchup last week against the Huskies, who stood alone atop the Pac-12 standings at the time. Oregon dismantled Washington, 82-57, with four players in double digits led by reserve forward Carlos Emory, who notched 16.

Forward E.J. Singler earned Pac-12 Player of the Week honors for his weekend showing, which included a game-high 23 points in a 78-69 win over Washington State to complete the home sweep.

The Ducks fly into Berkeley on a hot streak, looking to drop a conference leader and exact revenge on a squad that delivered a blow earlier in the season.

The Bears traveled to Eugene, Ore., for their first conference road trip in early January. Cal held a narrow 30-27 lead in the first half, due largely to 10 quick points from senior guard Jorge Gutierrez, but broke the game open in the final frame behind the sharp-shooting of Allen Crabbe.

Crabbe set a season-high mark in 3-pointers with six that night. One of his threes sparked a 13-0 run early in the half that put Cal up by 17. The Pac-12’s leader in 3-pointers totaled 26 points against the Ducks, 23 of which came in the second half alone.

“We played very, very well against them last time with our backs against a wall,” Montgomery said. “Allen made some really, really tough shots … We did play really hard, and that’s what we have to do.”

While Crabbe was certainly the story in Eugene that night, Gutierrez and senior forward Harper Kamp have garnered most of the attention preceding Thursday’s matchup. This weekend marks the final home stand of the illustrious careers of two players whose toughness has come to define the Montgomery era.

“They set the tone physically,” Montgomery said. “I think everybody on the team feels that they are unselfish players that really only care about winning games … That’s the kind of thing that if you create that in your program, it will carry over from year to year.

“They’re both smart players, and they’re winners.”

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