The student section for Arizona State is best known for its “curtain of distraction,” a curtain that the fans open up during the second half to reveal some sort of bright distraction to the visiting free-throw shooter. The Cal men’s basketball team shot 6-10 from the line in the second half compared to their perfect 2-2 in the first, but the distraction did little to change the outcome of the game.
Unlike the teams’ previous matchup in January, which featured 15 lead changes and 11 ties, this game only had 2 lead changes, and the Bears led for over 37 of 40 minutes en route to their fifth straight conference victory, 68-43. Cal dominated, led by Ivan Rabb, who notched his ninth conference double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds, as well as sharpshooter Grant Mullins, who finished with a game-high 18 points, all threes.
The teams came out with a few early turnovers and missed shots, but Cal (18-6, 9-3) quickly took a 5-0 lead behind a Charlie Moore layup and a three from Mullins. Cal has not been particularly effective in scoring the basketball — they rank 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring as opposed to ASU, who sits second — but facing the worst defense in the conference, the Bears looked to pounce on their opponents early.
This started on the defensive end, where Cal had a significant height advantage with three players 6’11” or taller, while no Sun Devil taller than 6’8” has averaged more than 10 minutes this season. Cal also boasts the top defensive rank in the conference, largely because of strong transition defense.
Cal played a 2-3 zone early and forced the Sun Devils to shoot threes, which they consistently failed to take advantage of. ASU shot a dismal 9 percent from range in the half, going 1-for-11. It is safe to say that the Bears’ overall defensive strategy worked, holding the Sun Devils to only 17 points in the half.
But the road to a 28-17 halftime lead wasn’t the easiest for Cal, as they committed many turnovers — at one point they gave the ball away on five consecutive possessions — due to careless play and a Sun Devils full-court press. This period of disastrous offensive play was coupled with some decent offense from ASU to tie the game at 17 with 6:27 to play.
A Cal timeout with 7:42 left in the half did little to help the turnovers, as Mullins immediately gave the ball away, but once Cal was able to break down the press, they went to their tried-and-true down low, Rabb.
After that timeout, Rabb was everywhere for the Bears as they closed the half. He assisted Jabari Bird and Stephen Domingo, grabbed four rebounds and hit two layups and two free throws. With the offense rolling once again and the defense continuing to stifle ASU into poor shots, Cal held the Sun Devils scoreless for the final six minutes of the half.
Those final six minutes of the first half allowed the Bears to take a firm grip on the game, and they played the entire second half in a similar manner with a stranglehold on their opponents. On the first possession, Mullins hit his third of the game from downtown, and the lead only expanded from there.
In the January game at Haas, the teams were tied in the final six minutes, but the performance that the Bears put forth Wednesday night — on the road, no less — showed the strides they have made. As Cal heads into a few crucial matchups against ranked teams Oregon and Arizona as well as a rivalry game on the road at Stanford, the confidence gained from such a dominant victory could go a long way in shoring up the fourth seed in the conference and an NCAA tournament berth.
Vikram Muller covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].