Cal men’s basketball gets back on track with wins over Wyoming, Southeastern Louisiana

Timothy Dawson/Staff

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After starting its season with two victories, the Cal men’s basketball team (4-1) dropped a neutral-site game against San Diego State last Monday despite the return of star big man Ivan Rabb and his first double-double of the season. A performance riddled with turnovers, in which Cal failed to surmount a 17-point halftime deficit, left the Bears wanting to feast in two home games after Thanksgiving. They did just that, adding Wyoming and Southeastern Louisiana to their plate of victories — 71-61 against the Cowboys followed by 67-55 over the Lions.

Against Wyoming, Cal was without senior wing Jabari Bird for the third consecutive outing, but the absence didn’t pose a significant problem, as the Bears were able to build a 22-point lead en route to a 71-61 victory. The game was highlighted, however, by a stretch late in the second half when the Cowboys trimmed the seemingly-secure Cal lead to as little as five points. Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin cited premature celebration as well as Rabb’s fatigue — in only his second game back from a toe injury — as reasons for Wyoming’s comeback.

“I think we got excited that we had a big lead, and we didn’t defend at the level we needed to,” Martin said. “We had four perimeter guys and Ivan, and Ivan’s winded but we need him to go because we feel like we were better with him at the five, and it took away from us a little bit offensively, and sometimes defensively.”

Nonetheless, Rabb posted his second double-double in as many games, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds. In addition, freshman Charlie Moore scored 18 points and dropped six dimes while running point, as graduate transfer Grant Mullins improved notably on his poor performance against the Aztecs — six points on 2-11 from the field and 25 percent from three-point range — notching 14 points on 4-9 and 40 percent from deep.

Bird was out again against Southeastern Louisiana and, also missing center Kameron Rooks, the Bears looked to their remaining big men early on offense. Rabb and Kingsley Okoroh drew attention in the post and then each dished out assists on Cal’s first two possessions. Two steals by Moore and a technical foul on the Lions’ starting point guard Marlain Veal had the Bears up 11-1 within the first three minutes.

Cal more or less maintained its double-digit lead throughout the first half. The offense, however, was largely generated by Moore, even though it was clear that the Bears were trying to feed their big men. Moore was a perfect 3-3 from deep in the first half, scoring 17 points and adding a steal while tipping a few passes to assert himself on defense.

Okoroh was the beneficiary of a 2-inch (as listed, but probably more) height advantage over SLU’s tallest player, Dominic Nelson, getting two tip-ins of his own misses down low. Rabb continued to post up on numerous possessions but was largely unsuccessful, shooting only 1-5.

“It’s still a little rough. I’m missing a lot of shots that I normally make, thinking too much, but I’m starting to get into a groove and my conditioning is getting a lot better,” Rabb said. “I’m used to being able to just finish all those shots under the basket. I really hate missing the easy ones.”

The Bears headed to the locker room up, 40-22.

Despite not shooting particularly well in the first half, Rabb got the ball down low on four of Cal’s first five shots in the second period but improved this time around, scoring on three, on his way to another double-double.

Cal’s stifling defense — which held the Lions to a miserable 8-25 shooting in the first half — was a shell of itself in the second half, as SLU shot an impressive 50 percent. The Bears had a field goal drought that lasted more than six minutes, which allowed SLU to chip away at the lead.

The Lions cut the lead to single digits at 48-39, but the Bears regained their double-digit lead on the next few possessions with an Okoroh tip-in and a block on the other end from the big man, followed by a Mullins three.

A Mullins steal led to a fastbreak layup and effectively sealed the game, putting the Bears up 61-46 with less than five minutes remaining — a lead too big for the Lions to come back from.

Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].