Coming into the Cal men’s basketball team’s first conference matchup of the season, the squad’s contest with Colorado figured to be a proving ground in what looks to be one of the most rigorous Pac-12 fields in recent memory.
With a 79-65 win, it’s safe to say that the Bears passed that first test.
Entering the game with an 11-2 record, including losses against two ranked opponents, the Buffs (11-3, 0-1 Pac-12) presented Cal with one of its tougher opponents of the season thus far. But after leading by as much as 23, the Bears proved that they can more than just keep pace. Ultimately notching the 14-point victory, Cal will head into Sunday’s matchup against Utah 11-3 with a strong start to the conference season.
“The Pac is tough,” said redshirt sophomore center Kingsley Okoroh. “It’s always good to start off with a win but we’ve got a long way to go.”
The first portion of the contest tilted definitively in favor of the home team. Starting off with a jumper from freshman forward Ivan Rabb that was followed by a trey from forward Jaylen Brown, the Bears leapt ahead to a quick 5-0 lead — a margin that would only increase in the following minutes. As Colorado struggled to find a basket — going 0-8 from the field by the first media timeout — Cal moved ahead to a 10-0 advantage.
It wouldn’t be until more than six minutes had passed that the Buffs would get on the board for the first time. But even that early in the contest, the pair of free throws from forward Josh Scott looked like they’d be too little too late. Already eight points behind, Colorado would struggle in the following minutes against a stalwart defensive performance from the Bears that kept the Buffs to 31.8 percent shooting and limited Scott — the team’s leading scorer — to just a 4-16 outing from the field. Meanwhile, Cal would embark on a 14-2 run midway through the frame, bringing the score to 32-14 with less than four minutes left to play in the first half.
Part of Cal’s production in the first half came from an impressive transition game. Featuring a right-handed dunk from Brown and a pair of fast breaks from senior guard Tyrone Wallace, the Bears’ fast-paced offense highlighted what has become a familiar style of play for the squad.
A less-expected boon for the Bears came from an eight-point half from Okoroh. Averaging just seven minutes per game coming into Friday’s matchup, the center was given a larger-than-usual role early on in the contest after Rabb went out with two fouls within the first four minutes. Going 3-3 from the field and registering two blocks, Okoroh registered solid performances on both ends of the floor as the half concluded with a 34-21 lead for Cal.
But despite the decisive lead, the first half was far from a perfect outing for the Bears. After an impressive three-point shooting performance in Monday’s game against Davidson when the Bears shot 54.5 percent from behind the arc, Cal registered a dismal 1-10 from the perimeter.
The second half, however, told a different story.
After going 0-4 in the first half, Cal guard Jordan Mathews lit up the floor in the second. Sinking five of five three-point shots, the junior was the defining factor in the Bears’ offense in the second half as the team continued to miss Rabb, who is usually among Cal’s leading scorers. Wallace and Brown added to the improved offensive performance with 19 points collectively, allowing the Bears to slide past their first Pac-12 matchup despite losing some of the first half’s defensive intensity and gifting the Buffs a game total of 25 free throw attempts.
“The win feels good,” Mathews said. “But we’ve got Utah in less than 48 hours and we’ve got to get ready for them.”