Backpedaling from a three-game losing streak compounded by the loss of its starting point guard and leading scorer Tyrone Wallace, the Cal men’s basketball team needed an easy win against lowly Arizona State to keep from falling off the cliff. Although it wasn’t the blowout they were looking for, the Bears got some breathing room, outlasting the Sun Devils in a victory that was a little too close for comfort.
Returning from its first road trip of the conference season, the Bears (13-6, 3-3 Pac-12) bested Arizona State (11-8, 1-5), 75-70, to snap a three-game losing streak. The Bears were led by forward Ivan Rabb with 20 points and eight rebounds to go along with three blocked shots.
“It was a good team win,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “It was a physical, tough game the way [Arizona State] played. I felt like our guys did a great job from start to finish. We knew it would be tough and a lot of credit to Sam Singer for facilitating the ball.”
Despite returning to Haas Pavilion, where Cal’s defense has been outstanding, the Bears struggled on that end to start the game. After the Sun Devils threw an errant pass that led to a fastbreak slam for forward Jaylen Brown following the opening tip, Cal proceeded to surrender open looks to shooters and layup attempts to streaking cutters.
Cal struggled to defend Arizona State’s strong pick-and-roll play. As the Sun Devils’ guards came off of screens, they would force a Cal frontcourt player to help prevent an easy drive to the rim. This led to open opportunities for jump shots and layups. Luckily for the Bears, Arizona State came into its game against Cal second to last in field goal percentage in the Pac-12, converting just 42.8 percent of its shots. Despite producing open shots out of the pick-and-rolls and crisp passes from the wing, Arizona State made only one of its first six shots.
Midway through the first half, with Cal slightly ahead, 13-11, the Bears made their first substantial run on the back of guard Sam Singer. On the first play to start the run, Singer came off of a screen, faked right, crossed the ball going to his left and dished it off to center Kingsley Okoroh for a dunk as his defender rotated over to help. Cal then made its next four buckets, all assisted by Singer, to stretch the lead to 24-18.
Singer finished the first half with zero points but eight of Cal’s 12 assists. The other four came from Rabb, who also had 12 points and six rebounds going into the locker room with the Bears leading, 38-30.
“[Playing point guard] felt really comfortable out there,” Singer said. “I’ve been a point guard all my life. It’s nothing new to me, and it makes it easier when I have guys like Ivan [Rabb] and Jordan [Mathews] and Jaylen [Brown] out there on the floor.”
The Cal lead ballooned to as much as 14 points with 13 minutes remaining in the game after a pair of free throws from guard Jordan Mathews. The Sun Devils, however, cut the deficit to just two points after a six-minute stretch when Cal only attempted six shots compared to Arizona State’s 12.
With Rabb carrying the burden of the Cal offense to close the game, the Sun Devils looked to attack him in the post. After picking up his fourth foul with a little more than two minutes remaining in the ball game, the freshman forward didn’t miss a beat and recorded his third block of the game the following possession. Okoroh followed Rabb’s block with one of his own, leading to a layup for Brown in the open court to extend the Cal lead to 69-65. The two squads then swapped fouls for free throws for the remaining minute of the game, with the Bears barely holding on for their third conference victory.
“I don’t know if it was a mental breakdown like our last three games,” Martin said about the end of the game. “They just made some plays at the end.”
Winston Cho covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @winstonscho