SAN JOSE — As Allen Crabbe and Justin Cobbs go, so too goes the Cal men’s basketball team.
The 12-seeded Bears were going to need excellent performances from their All-Pac-12 duo to upend No. 4 seed Syracuse in their NCAA Tournament round of 32 game on Saturday. Yet, on the biggest stage of their basketball careers, Crabbe and Cobbs simply faded away, combining for 13 points and nine turnovers in Cal’s 66-60 loss to the Orange.
“We didn’t have a lot of people that were playing above their ability,” said Bears coach Mike Montgomery. “We didn’t have a whole bunch of people that rose to the occasion that this was a big game and (they were) going to play better than (they had).”
At HP Pavilion, the promise of a Sweet Sixteen berth for Cal (21-12) was soured by the Orange (28-9). In a game that gave new meaning to the word “ugly,” the Bears turned the ball over 17 times and put Syracuse on the foul line 41 times. The Orange only made a ghastly 63 percent of their free throws, but Cal, looking out of sorts all game against Syracuse’s renowned 2-3 zone, could never sustain a scoring run to prevail.
“We don’t really play teams who are in the zone for 40 minutes,” said Crabbe, who shot 3-of-9 from the field. “We didn’t attack the zone like we should have.
“They keyed on me. The shots that I thought I would probably get weren’t there.”
The Bears, coming off an inspired performance in their second-round win over UNLV Thursday, lazily passed the ball around the perimeter for much of Saturday’s contest, rarely attacking the rim until late in the game. Crabbe did not attempt his first shot until eight and a half minutes had passed. That 3-pointer was his only basket of the half, while Cobbs was scoreless in the first 20 minutes. As such, Cal was lucky to only be down 32-24 at halftime.
Syracuse jumped out to an 11-2 lead to start the game, taking advantage of seven straight turnovers by the Bears. With virtually no production from Crabbe and Cobbs, Cal was led by inconsistent forward Richard Solomon, erratic guard Tyrone Wallace and offensively-limited forward Robert Thurman. Cal had some success finding Thurman down low from high-post feeds, while Wallace slipped through Syracuse’s zone for three first-half buckets. Solomon had nine at the half, including consecutive three-point plays where he just outmuscled the Orange’s big men. Solomon finished with 22 points and 14 rebounds in his best performance at Cal.
“I thought we started the game very, very tentative,” Montgomery said. “I don’t really know what we expected of the zone or what we expected of Syracuse, but we didn’t have the same confidence level that we had against UNLV.”
The Orange opened up the second half on a mission to be the aggressor and drive to the basket. If they made their free throws, they would have ran Cal out of the building. The Bears went 8:38 without scoring a field goal, but Syracuse could not build a lead larger than 14 when it was scoring one point at a time.
A late scoring spree by Cal made the score — and its offensive statistics — look respectable. Crabbe and Walace drained back-to-back threes to narrow the score to 58-51 with 1:52 remaining. A layup by Cobbs 30 seconds later had the Bears only six points down. But turnovers continued to haunt Cal, as the Bears handed the ball over three times in the final two minutes to put an end to their attempt at a furious comeback.
“If we had come out with that in the beginning, it might have been a different game,” said forward David Kravish. “I think we helped give it away.”
Syracuse moves on to regional semifinals on Thursday in Washington D.C. The Bears, meanwhile, saw an improved finish from last season when they lost in the NCAA Tournament play-in game. Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, not surprisingly gave no indication as to whether he had played his last game in a Cal uniform. “It would be selfish of me to think about my future,” he said.
Cobbs, meanwhile, talked about taking the positives from this game and this season into the next one.
“The way we stuck together, the way we played as a team, the way we fought in this game … I’m proud of everyone,” he said.