Cal men’s basketball mounts 17-point comeback victory over Stanford

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Debbie Yuen/File

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For the Cal men’s basketball team (7-7), the writing was on the wall again for another blowout. Stanford (6-8) mounted a 17-point lead in the second half and carved up Cal’s zone defense, while the Bears couldn’t string together a pair of buckets to save their lives. Loss No. 8 seemed like an inevitability.

Instead of laying down and accepting fate, however, Cal threw the original manuscript in the shredder, burned it until nothing but ashes remained and wrote a new story. Hibernation finally ended for the Bears.

Behind a combined 38 second-half points by freshmen Darius McNeill and Justice Sueing and senior Marcus Lee, as well as a field goal percentage of 61 percent in the latter 20 minutes of play, Cal emerged victorious with a score of 77-74 in arguably its most important win of the season.

‘‘Really, really proud of my guys and the staff for not throwing in the towel, just staying with it, chipping away, believing that we had a chance to get it done even though we were down pretty much the entire game,” said head coach Wyking Jones. “We found a way to dig ourselves out of a hole. I’m very excited about that.’’

Leading that charge was one of the youngest of the pack in Sueing, who would finish the game with 18 points, 14 of which came in the second half. In the final three minutes of play, the budding freshman tallied eight points, including an and-one layup that put his squad ahead with less than 30 seconds to play. Sueing would also find fellow freshman Grant Anticevich in the corner on a fast break off of a defensive rebound for a crucial three-pointer, which brought the Bears within one.

The win is Cal’s first at Maples Pavilion since 2014.

‘‘Early in the season, we would get down and stay down and would not try to pick back up,” Sueing said. “The coaches were on us and we were on each other to stay together, and staying together is what got us the win tonight. I’m proud of my guys.’’

Right out of the gate, Cal decided to run with a combination of a full-court press in the backcourt and a zone defense in the frontcourt, but Stanford needed only about two minutes to figure out the defensive scheme.

By keeping the ball moving and making the extra pass, the Cardinal kept the Bears’ defense scrambling and got plenty of wide-open looks both on the perimeter and down in the paint. Only a couple minutes into the ballgame, Stanford rattled off an 11-0 run before forcing Cal to pump the brakes by way of a timeout.

Cal would ditch the full-court press after a few failed attempts, which did nothing but expend extra energy and put the retreating defense in poor position. The Bears, however, remained adamant on rolling with the zone defense even after the Cardinal repeatedly found themselves with uncontested looks at the hoop.

The task of defending the Stanford offense didn’t get any easier when seniors Lee and Kingsley Okoroh got themselves into foul trouble early. Lee and Okoroh’s foul trouble forced Anticevich to get early minutes, but even he would have three fouls to his name by the end of the first half of play.

With Lee and Okoroh relegated to the bench, not only did Cal lack a pair of elite shot blockers; it was also without its two best rebounders. Stanford isn’t a relatively big team — the Cardinal only have one player at seven feet in stature — but with Cal’s starting frontcourt forced to take a seat early, the Cardinal feasted on undersized Cal units.

Lee and Okoroh’s early foul trouble forced Jones to look to the back end of his bench. Freshmen Anticevich and Austin McCullough, sophomore Roman Davis and senior Cole Welle, all of whom entered play having played less than 100 total minutes, saw the court during the first half of play.

In the waning minutes of the first half, Jones rolled out a lineup of McCullough, Anticevich, Welle, Sueing and junior Don Coleman for the first time this season, a lineup that signified Cal’s limited personnel because of foul trouble.

The Bears didn’t exactly help themselves out on the offensive end of the floor, as there were multiple moments of stagnation, allowing Stanford to extend its lead to 37-24 at the break. Lee was one of the few bright spots for Cal on offense, looking especially good early on, but the aforementioned fouls limited the time he spent on the floor.

In the second half, however, Cal flipped a switch, playing like a new team on both ends of the floor. On defense, the Bears finally ditched the zone and opted to play man-to-man, a decision that cut down on the Cardinal’s open looks at the rim. The defense fed into the frenetic pace of the offense, which shied away from jumpers and looked to get the ball down low.

Cal would only lead the ballgame for less than two minutes, but at the end of the day, all that matters is being up on top when that final buzzer sounds.

‘‘At the beginning of the second half, they did a great job attacking our man (defense),” Jones said. “Once our guys got settled in and saw what they were trying to do, we started doing a better job of containing them off the dribble. Nick Hamilton came in and really gave us a spark guarding Dorian Pickens. His energy and enthusiasm — the other guys fed off of it. Once we did a better job of keeping them off the offensive glass, it worked out for us.’’

Justice delos Santos is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jdelossantos510

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