As the saying goes, it’s not how you start, but how you finish. Junior Don Coleman of the Cal men’s basketball team (5-6) struggled all game long against Cal State Fullerton (6-4), but he came through in crunch time with a couple of key buckets. Along with freshman Darius McNeill’s milestone day — with McNeill posting career highs of 30 points, six assists and five steals as well as tying a career high of six rebounds — Coleman’s 26 points, eight of which came in overtime, propelled the Bears to a 95-89 overtime win.
“You get to see what you’re really made of in overtime — if you’re gonna give up or keep playing,” said Coleman.
Cal and Fullerton found themselves in a nail-biter of an affair down the stretch, trading buckets with one another in the second half. The Bears would hit a tough bucket, and the Titans would respond with a dagger of their own.
With the Bears down by 3 late in the second half, junior Don Coleman, who would finish the game on an ugly 5 of 23 from the field, drained a corner 3-pointer and a foul to put the Bears up by 1 late in the second half.
“Throughout the game, I was kind of struggling,” Coleman said. “Me, I’m just gonna keep playing and keep playing and keep playing, and that’s what I did. We got the ‘W,’ so I guess it worked. I always think the next (shot) is gonna go in. I never lose confidence in myself.”
Cal had the lead in the final seconds of regulation, but Fullerton would tie the game at 80 with 0.3 seconds left, as freshman Daniel Venzant hit a tough, contested layup in the chest of Cal senior Marcus Lee to tie up the ballgame.
The Bears would pull away in the overtime period, handily outscoring Fullerton 15-9, but things got a little chippy down the stretch. With Fullerton down 6 with less than 30 seconds to go, Venzant hit an off-balance, acrobat layup — a shot which arguably warranted a foul.
Coleman received the inbounds pass following the layup, and Venzant quickly fouled then tried to knock the ball out of Coleman’s hands once the play was dead. At the end of the day, it would be Coleman and Cal who would have the last laugh, snapping Fullerton’s five-game winning streak.
While Cal’s 63-62 upset victory over San Diego State was dominated by defense, offense was on the menu in the team’s first game of the winter break. The Bears and the Titans each had a much needed week of rest due to finals week, and that freshness was well apparent in the way both teams shot the rock.
McNeill put on an offensive show from the jump. Whether it was tough finishes in traffic or hitting shots from beyond the arc, the freshman was the closest thing to automatic in the first half. McNeill tied his previous career-high of 22 in the first half of play alone, hitting eight of nine shots from the field and all four of his 3-pointers to push his squad out to a 46-37 lead by the break.
After draining four 3-pointers Saturday afternoon, McNeill has now splashed home a trey in every game this season and is shooting 49 percent from beyond the arc for the season.
For all of McNeill’s offensive heroics, it was Fullerton’s dynamic junior backcourt of Kyle Allman, Jr. and Khalil Ahmad who stole the show. Anytime the Bears were on the verge of pulling away, Allman and Ahmad kept the Titans in the ballgame, combining for 51 points and hitting a couple clutch shots late in the second half.
On an afternoon when sophomore Jackson Rowe was contained by Cal’s defense, recording only 2 points on three shots, these two juniors single-handedly kept Fullerton in the ballgame, as they were responsible for 31 of the Titans’ 37 first half points.
“We scouted them, and we knew they could shoot the ball,” Coleman said. “We were right there for most of their threes and they just went in. You’ve got to live with it.”
Cal’s senior big-man duo of Lee and Kingsley Okoroh both had very fine games as well, chipping in 19 and 8 points, respectively. Lee would finish the afternoon with 12 rebounds as well.
Two of Okoroh’s points came by way of an emphatic, two-handed slam over a Fullerton defender in the first half, while Lee slammed down an alley-oop lobbed by freshman Justice Sueing, which energized the Haas Pavilion crowd.
“(Lee and Okoroh were) big,” Coleman said. “Protected the rim, got blocks, got rebounds, finished, got dunks. They (were) a big part of us getting the ‘W’ today.”