It’s a widely held belief in basketball that if your shooter is hot, you keep them in the game — and continue to put the ball in their hands. The hope is that the heat doesn’t subside, and hopefully others on the team catch fire, too. Luckily for the Bears, in their Tuesday evening win over CSUN, 83-63, freshman Darius McNeill’s hands never went cold, going a near-perfect six of seven from beyond the arc and leading Cal with 22 total points.
“The first few games I was pretty nervous, just trying to get the feel for college basketball,” McNeill said. “Now I think I’m just comfortable, matured.”
The Bears started the game with a clear intention of playing small ball, opting to start freshmen McNeill, Justice Sueing, Juhwan Harris-Dyson, junior Don Coleman and senior Marcus Lee, bringing center Kingsley Okoroh off the bench. The impact of this change was apparent almost immediately, allowing Cal to be more quick and dynamic on both ends of the court and opening up more space for whoever was holding down the inside for the Bears.
“It opened up the floor,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “It opens up the passing lanes and the floor for our guys who are very good at penetrating, it allows those guys more room to maneuver. It also allows for (Okoroh) and (Lee) to not be as congested when they get the ball in the post.”
The guard-heavy offense also proved to produce better off-ball movement, and Cal’s quick-handed guards consistently found perfect pocket passes and played smart drive-and-dish basketball.
While McNeill was the offensive heart for the Bears in the first half, the range of supporting actors who filled out the stat sheet was far more diverse than it had been in previous games. Ten Bears scored in the first half on a high team shooting percentage of 52.9 percent, helping to carry Cal to a hefty 48-30 halftime lead.
The Bears’ defense, too, brought the heat in the first half — coming out with a tight man defense to start, forcing the Matadors to go a poor 35.3 percent from the field, with two players — Michael Warren and Terrell Gomez — combining for 22 of their team’s 30 points. Cal switched back and forth between a man and a zone defense, the latter of which presented better close-out and ball awareness than it has all season.
Cal continued with its smaller lineup in the second half, keeping four guards in and rotating Lee and Okoroh down low. The recipe, which heralded better ball movement and open looks, was evidently the one that the Bears had been missing, as it helped them expand their lead to 24 within five minutes of the second half.
The small ball also lent itself to a speedier transition game, garnering the Bears ample transition baskets, particularly in the second half, as Cal was able to rack up blocks and steals against a tired-looking CSUN team. The Bears posted 10 fast break points in the second half, one of the most notable of which came from a fast break bounce pass feed from Coleman to a streaking Harris-Dyson for a slam dunk.
A larger lesson to be learned from the resounding 83-63 win is the depth of the Bears’ bench and the ever-improving capabilities of their freshman class. Fourteen Cal players saw minutes against the Matadores, and while the scoring was carried by McNeill, five other Bears had six or more points — a distinct departure from the unbalanced scoring trends of games past.
“I’m very happy with the team’s performance tonight, I felt like we came out of the gates ready to play and focused,” Jones said. “I feel like our defense was a lot better tonight.”
Sophie Goethals is an assistant sports editor.
Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected]