It appeared as if the Cal men’s basketball team had finally started a game off on the right foot. With a 7-0 run to begin the game, it looked as if the Bears would enact revenge for its loss to USC on Jan. 22, the Trojans’ only Pac-12 win to date.
But the Bears’ hopes of an easy victory over last-place USC quickly dried up. Cal’s offense slowed significantly as the first half of play wore on, and the Bears would trail by as many as six in the first period before finally settling into a 30-27 halftime deficit.
And so the script against USC (10-17, 1-13 Pac-12) on Sunday night was the same as it has been in nearly every Pac-12 game for the Bears this season: A rocky start forced Cal to muster another rally to pull away with a win.
This time, the Bears were able to rally. Cal (18-9, 9-5) outscored USC by 16 in the second half, eventually leading to a relatively stress-free 77-64 victory over the Trojans.
“It was a win we had to have,” said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. “It was a win we got, and I would have been very disappointed if we didn’t.”
Early in the contest, the Bears’ defense was able to suppress the Trojans, who were without their leading scorer Byron Wesley. After fumbling the opening tipoff, Richard Solomon made up for his mistake by rejecting Nikola Jovanovic on the latter’s subsequent layup attempt. Solomon’s block established a trend that would continue through the first half. Led by David Kravish, who had four blocks, Cal rejected USC eight times in the first period of play — just one shy of the team’s season high.
The Trojans connected on just 37.9 percent of their shot attempts in that first half. Yet the Bears were unable to pick up the slack on the offensive end. Cal hit just under USC’s percentage, and that three-point deficit remained as a result.
As he has done so often this season, Justin Cobbs carried the Bears through the second half. The senior point guard put up 15 of his 22 points in the latter portion of the game, hitting eight of his 10 field-goal attempts. Cobbs also tacked on seven assists as he willed his team to victory.
“I just do whatever the play call is,” Cobbs said. “I was just able to get to the basket and make plays.”
After slowly closing the gap through much of the second half, Cal finally exploded in the final eight minutes of play to put the game out of reach. Cobbs’ back-to-back layups began the Bears’ final run, as Cal would never trail past the 7:28 mark.
With less than three minutes to play, Jabari Bird sunk two 3-point attempts in a row from the corner to put the Bears up 12, essentially sealing Cal’s victory and saving the team from the embarrassment of losing to the worst team in the conference not once but twice.
“When it got late, (Bird) just started slowing the game down,” Cobbs said. “Catch-and-shoot — something so simple, which he is really good at.”