Just after the first media timeout at the Cal men’s basketball game against Fresno State, a small buzz began to build in one corner of the court. Folks positioned in the bleachers behind the basket craned their necks toward the courtside seats. Others pulled out their phones to snap a picture. Kids implored their parents to tell them who everyone was staring at. As it turned out, Houston Rockets guard James Harden and his posse had found seats opposite the Bulldogs’ bench.
It seemed the fans weren’t the only ones gawking at the NBA superstar. Shortly after his entrance, both teams proceeded to go ice-cold from the field. It took the Bulldogs nearly nine minutes to score four points. Meanwhile, Cal went three minutes without making a field goal, finally ending their drought on a fast break lay-up from Tyrone Wallace.
It was an ugly stretch, but the Bears had built a bit of a cushion, and held an eight-point lead midway through the first half. Cal cruised with a similarly-sized lead for the remainder of the game; although Fresno State made occasional runs, they never felt particularly threatening. In fact, Harden’s appearance may have been the most compelling part of the game.
The Bears played sloppy, shooting 65% from the charity stripe and 21% from three. But they emerged with a 67-56 win anyway over Fresno State (6-5) Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.
“Sometimes you have win with defense,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “It wasn’t pretty in a lot of ways, but defensively I thought we were good.
It was Richard Solomon’s game. While his statline of 17 points and 14 rebounds reads as impressive, his performance more closely resembled dominance. Any time the Bears (8-3) could, they dumped the ball to Solomon in the post. The Bulldogs — whose tallest player on the floor was sometimes four inches shorter than the Cal center — could not cover him with just one player.
With all of the Bears’ perimeter players struggling with their jumpers, the offensive output from the senior was needed. Solomon either went up strong after a flurry of post moves or drew a double team in the post, opening up the Cal offense to operate.
“I think if you focus on defense, the offense just comes,” Solomon said. “We knew they weren’t the biggest team, so (Montgomery) wanted to go down to me and (Kravish) in the post and take advantage of that.”
Solomon also controlled things on the defensive end. The forward contributed his usual stellar rim protection, playing a major part in holding Fresno State to 32.8% shooting from the field. But with the Bulldogs in a small ball lineup, Solomon was often dragged out onto the perimeter. The near 7-footer was game, forcing smaller and quicker players into contested jumpers more often than not.
His perimeter cohorts, though shaky on offense, also posted stellar defensive efforts. Their primary challenge was Fresno State leading scorer Marvell Harris, a strong 6-foot-4 guard with handles for days. Harris didn’t even make a shot in the first half, going 0-for-8 from the field and scoring just two points.
“It was one of those ugly nights,” said guard Ricky Kreklow. “But it’s better to win ugly than lose pretty.”