SAN JOSE — Allen Crabbe clapped his hands, pointed to the crowd and pulled up his jersey, biting the top of it so the “California” on his chest was visible for all to see.
Four days after Crabbe talked about the Cal men’s basketball team’s opportunity to put its name back out there, the Bears did just that on Thursday with a 64-61 win over UNLV in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Cal (21-11) missed four of six free throws down the stretch to allow the Runnin’ Rebels (25-10) to pull within two, but Crabbe, the Pac-12 Player of the Year, sunk a pair with 1.6 seconds left to ice the upset. The 12th-seeded Bears advance to the round of 32 to face Syracuse Saturday at 6:40 p.m.
“The kids really had a proper attitude coming into this,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “We played really hard. I don’t think there was a fear factor … We felt like we could win.”
Crabbe led a balanced offensive attack for Cal with 19 points. Meanwhile, Anthony Bennett, whose monstrous 25-point performance led to the Rebels’ one-point win over Cal back in December, was a nonfactor on Thursday. He scored 15 points on 4-of-11 shooting, struggling to get touches against the Bears’ zone defense.
“I was told to crowd him every time he catches it and faces up,” said forward David Kravish. “In the post, I just put my arms up, and he couldn’t get it over me or I blocked it.”
This was not your typical 12-5 upset. The Bears, playing at nearby HP Pavilion, looked like a team that expected to win, and UNLV was playing catchup for much of the contest.
Unlike in its Pac-12 Tournament quarterfinal loss to Utah, Cal was fired up to start the contest. The Bears got steals on the first two possessions and scored the game’s first seven points.
“We always talk about the first five minutes, as they are the most important,” said Justin Cobbs, who tallied 13 points and six assists on the evening. “It gave us momentum for the rest of the game.”
Forward Richard Solomon was particularly energized, as he led Cal with nine points at the half, including a spinning fadeaway jumper and a rare 3-pointer. Bryce Dejean-Jones and Katin Reinhardt shot a combined 4-for-8 from 3-point range to keep the halftime score even at 28.
Cal opened the second half with a 9-3 run, with Crabbe scoring the first two buckets on curls. Justin Cobbs nailed a 3-pointer to cap off the spurt before UNLV called timeout. The Rebels immediately tied the game at 37 with six unanswered, including another trey from Reinhardt.
Then the Bears went to work, scoring eight in a row. Crabbe continued to be aggressive on offense, and Cobbs nailed a three to keep his team’s lead at eight with 12 minutes remaining.
With no production inside, UNLV continued to shoot from the perimeter in the second half, but Reinhardt and Dejean-Jones cooled off considerably. While the Rebels were taking contested jumpers early in the shot clock instead of working the ball in to Bennett, Cal’s guards were finding center Robert Thurman for four consecutive dunks, slowly building up a lead.
With the Bears up 60-53 with under one minute to go, the game would come down to free throws — and Cal almost blew it. Cobbs and Crabbe both missed front ends of one-and-ones. Then Tyrone Wallace missed two, followed by one from Cobbs. But Cal was fouling too, forcing a lethal outside-shooting team to get its points one at a time. The strategy worked.
“It wasn’t always smooth,” Montgomery said. “(But) we never got to where we were down and out and whatever we were trying to do didn’t work.”