There were 20 minutes until tipoff and the band members outnumbered the people in the stands. There were no students in the overflow section. A man in an A’s shirt sitting alone in the very back row glanced up and down at his phone. Half the courtside seats were empty. If not for the “NATIONAL INVITATIONAL TOURNAMENT” banner appearing in every which corner of Haas Pavilion, the scene could’ve been mistaken for a spring practice.
The Cal men’s basketball team’s blowout of Utah Valley was about as humdrum as the pregame scene. The Wolverines hung around for the first half, thanks to a few bonkers 3-pointers from senior Holton Hunsaker, but it was clear from the opening tipoff that Cal just had too much size and strength for its low-major opponents to handle. In a 77-64 blowout of Utah Valley in the first round of the NIT on Wednesday night, the Bears’ superior athleticism enabled an offensive explosion; the Bears scored 1.15 points per possession, one of their most efficient performances of the season.
“(The Wolverines) were very well-coached,” said head coach Mike Montgomery. “They won’t run or jump past you, but they execute really well.”
From the opening tip, where David Kravish skied above the Wolverines’ center Ben Aird, it was clear the Bears had a significant athletic advantage. Justin Cobbs and Jabari Bird posted up smaller opponents and found easy pull-up jumper opportunities. Tyrone Wallace beat everyone down the floor in transition. Utah Valley conceded open threes to pretty much every Bear who wanted one. Every shot Cal took looked like a good one.
Despite their limitations, the Wolverines didn’t just immediately roll over. Their offensive game plan of postups and backdoor cuts seemed to surprise the Cal defense; Utah Valley had no problem finding open looks in the early going, even taking the lead a couple of times.
Their last lead of the game came with 9:56 left in the first half when Hunsaker’s 3-pointer — arcing like a rainbow from 30 feet out — gave the Wolverines a 23-20 advantage. From there, the Bears embarked on a 10-0 run, capped off by an and-1 layup by Wallace that prompted a Wolverine timeout. Once again, Utah Valley refused to concede, bringing the deficit to two after another Hunsaker 3-pointer and an Aird layup. But Cal countered with an 11-4 run to stretch its lead to 43-34.
The crowd reached its most animated point midway through the second half, when the game was already effectively in the bag. Last man off the bench Jeff Powers, whose role is almost exclusively catch-and-shooting, sank a step-back three. On the next possession, Powers hit a trail three in transition, and the tiny crowd exploded. The three brought the Cal lead to 60-43 with 13:16 left.
“There’s no rust on this machine,” Powers said.
Powers remained in the game for the next four minutes, jacking up another five shots. It was a fitting scene for a thorough blowout.