LOS ANGELES — As the Cal men’s basketball team filed out of its locker room at Galen Center, the players and coaches exhaled a collective sigh of relief.
After two disheartening losses to Harvard at home and at UCLA, the Bears needed a jolt of life and a taste of victory. The hard-fought 72-64 win against USC on Saturday night provided both for slumping Cal (9-5, 1-1 in the Pac-12).
“We needed this badly,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said.
Unlike the past two games, Montgomery and company witnessed a much improved bench play and perimeter shooting. The three-man bench, thinned out by a recent succession of injuries, scored 10 points. The substitutes scored just six points in the past two games together.
But the more important improvement of the night was the newfound ability to knock down the three-pointers. After not making a single three-pointer since the Prairie View A&M game on Dec. 22, Cal scored 5-of-8 attempts from beyond the arc.
After missing two previous attempts, the Bears finally broke the curse when guard Jeff Powers nailed his first three-point attempt at the eight-minute mark of the first half in fastbreak. Powers soon followed up with another successful three-pointer assisted by forward Bak Bak — his fourth assist in his four years at Cal.
For Montgomery, the perimeter shooting was a much-needed dimension to the Bears’ undermanned and limited offensive gameplan.
“It just gives you a chance to get some other people involved and not always going to the same two places,” Montgomery said.
On the defensive side, the Bears held the Trojans (6-9, 1-1) at bay with a zone defense to limit the foul count for the starting players. Despite a size disadvantage, Cal’s post players held its ground against USC’s pair of seven-foot centers, out-rebounding them 35 to 32.
The game from start to finish was a close affair, as neither teams could string together an explosive run. But the Bears throughout the contest held onto a slim lead.
Coming out of halftime with a 32-29 lead, Cal saw guard Allen Crabbe once again take over the game in the second half. After netting eight points in the first half, Crabbe scored 19 points in the second half, including 11 straight points in the middle of the frame.
Crabbe attacked the basket in different ways from underneath the post to behind the three-point line, straying away from his previous stereotype as a pure distance shooter.
“We’ve got a mismatch (in the post), and I can go down there,” Crabbe said. “It’s just taking advantage of what the defense gives us.”
Despite Crabbe’s heroics, the Trojans hung on, trailing by just one with four and a half minutes left. But freshman guard Tyrone Wallace placed the dagger into USC’s comeback hopes with two three-pointers.
“I know I was struggling in threes,” Wallace said. “They told me to keep shooting and have confidence in making them.”
With the first Pac-12 victory of the season under their belts, the Bears head back home to face Washington next Wednesday.
Contact Seung Y. Lee at [email protected]