The Golden State Warriors are not the only team in the East Bay that’s undefeated on their home floor. With Cal men’s basketball’s 71-58 victory over Utah, the Bears improved to 11-0 at Haas Pavilion while earning their second conference victory to start 2-0 in the Pac-12.
After a disappointing overtime loss to Stanford just a couple of days prior, the No. 21 Utes (11-4, 0-2 Pac-12) followed up their defeat with another to Cal (12-3, 2-0 Pac-12) on Sunday night. The Bears were led by a stunning 19 point and 10 rebound performance by forward Ivan Rabb, his seventh double-double of the season.
“I was definitely being more aggressive (in the second half) but more it was my teammates pushing me,” Rabb said. “Everyone was saying, ‘Go ahead, you can score.’ Every time I caught it I was trying to get a bucket or get to the free throw line. I felt good in the second half.”
From the starting tip to the final buzzer, Cal’s defense was on a string against Utah. The Bears allowed no open jump shots, no easy cuts and hardly any transition opportunities. Cal held the No. 2 offense in the Pac-12 to just 22 points in the first half and 58 points for the game.
None of the Bears’ previous four opponents has shot better than 40 percent at Haas Pavilion, and head coach Cuonzo Martin’s squad would continue that streak against Utah. The Utes struggled mightily on offense as their leading scorer, forward Jakob Poeltl, could not get it going in the paint against the big men combination of Rabb and centers Kingsley Okoroh and Kameron Rooks. Okoroh, averaging just nine minutes per contest, proved valuable as a defensive presence registering three blocks in 18 minutes of play. Rooks similarly proved useful as the Bears dumped the ball to him down low during scoring droughts, converting a left-handed hook to stretch the Cal lead to eight in the midst of a Utah run in the second half.
Utah’s inability to score in the paint was exacerbated by Cal’s stingy defense on the perimeter. The Bears funneled the Utah wings away from the paint and limited the squad to two-of-12 shooting from deep. As the Utes continued to struggle from the perimeter, Cal increasingly double-teamed post up attempts by Poeltl leading to steals and transition opportunities. After Utah made its first shot to start the game, a three-pointer, it finished the first half shooting just 30 percent from the floor.
Nursing a 26-22 lead coming out of the locker room to start the second half, the Bears stretched their lead to as much as 10 after a free throw by Rabb. The Utes, however, came surging back behind the strong pick-and-roll chemistry between Poeltl and guard Brandon Taylor.
After Rabb’s free throw with a little less than 12 minutes remaining in the ball game, Taylor responded with a gutsy three-pointer in semi-transition. The Utes followed that up with back-to-back layups, another jumper by Taylor and a free throw and a dunk from Poeltl off a sweet dish out of the pick-and-roll by Taylor to make the count, 49-46.
The last eight minutes, however, belonged to Rabb and guard Jordan Mathews. After the lead was cut to just three points, Mathews responded with a three-pointer in the left corner, followed by a foul line jumper by Rabb and another three-pointer from Mathews. In less than three minutes, Cal got the lead back to a comfortable 10-point margin. This also marked the sixth consecutive game in which Mathews drained three or more shots from behind the arc.
Utah cut the lead to six points after an and-one opportunity, but guard Sam Singer put the game away a couple of possessions later with a dagger stepback jumper to get the lead back up to 10 with a little less than a minute left.
“Sometimes if you have a breakdown and a guy hits a three, guys put their heads down,” Martin said. “We stayed with it and kept our composure. Good teams make plays. They are a really good team. They aren’t going to think the game is over until the buzzer sounds.”
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho