In front of both an undersized home crowd and an undersized opponent, Cal registered its seventh victory of the season Wednesday night, topping Incarnate Word, 74-62.
After winning the tip, Cal finished off a clean first possession with a jumper from forward Jaylen Brown, who put guard Jontrell Walker on skates to give the Bears their first points of the night. Walker, however, soon recovered, sinking a corner three over Cal center Kameron Rooks on the other end.
The two teams continued to exchange baskets in the opening minutes of the game until Cal went on a 7-0 run to take a 12-6 lead. The Cardinals’ size disadvantage was apparent early, as forward Jerred Kite was the only starter taller than 6- foot-5. With Rooks manning the paint and Cal (7-2) closing up driving lanes, Incarnate Word (3-4) found itself struggling to get to the rim.
But as the Bears began to lose their offensive rhythm, the Cardinals began to find theirs. Incarnate Word hurriedly countered a series of futile Cal possessions, closing the deficit and eventually taking the lead again on a free throw from guard Shawn Johnson — its first lead in nearly 10 minutes.
With just over five minutes remaining in the half, the Cardinals were shooting 63 percent from beyond the arc, compared to Cal’s measly 30. The Bears were also hindered by their five turnovers — mistakes that led to five points for Incarnate Word — and by what became an ice-cold half for Brown, who tallied zero field goals and two personal fouls after his first bucket. Cal also had trouble keeping Johnson in check, who led both teams with 13 first-half points and six boards.
Cal eventually managed to salvage the half behind some impressive minutes from guard Sam Singer off the bench and a three from guard Jabari Bird from the left wing. The three-pointer tied the game at 31 apiece entering halftime, closing out a disappointing first half for the Bears, who couldn’t garner a lead despite having more points in the paint and second-chance points than Incarnate Word.
“I think our guys get a little stagnant against the zone, especially when the shots don’t fall,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “Against the zone you got to be aggressive.”
Bird kicked off the second half with another three, handing Cal its first lead in almost nine game-time minutes, while Brown quickly sent the bench and the crowd into a frenzy with two monster dunks in transition.
The Bears’ offense finally picked up, as all the baskets that seemed to evade them finally seemed to fall. After scoring only three points in the first half, Mathews made a three and a layup in rapid succession and was fouled on the latter for the and-1. Though his free throw attempt fell short, the offensive rebound was kicked out to Brown in the left corner, who dropped in the three to push Cal’s lead to 10.
Though the Cardinals kept the game close for the remaining minutes, the Bears had just enough breathing room to maintain their perfect home record.
“It’s vital to come out with energy. I thought we came out flat,” said Cal forward Ivan Rabb. “I think if we play like we came out at the start of the second half, we’ll be in a great spot.”