Cal basketball holds off Utah’s late rally, advances to Pac-12 semifinals

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Cal fans have developed a love-hate relationship with Utah this season. After one thrilling win for the Bears in early February and one blowout victory for the Utes a week ago, naturally, the tension was high as the two matched up once again Wednesday in the quarterfinals of the Pac-12 tournament.

Within the first few minutes of the game, it was apparent that the style of this game would mimic the thrilling first of the two prior games rather than the blowout from a week ago. The game was closely contested throughout, but a stout defensive effort and a vastly improved offense for Cal helped the team reach the semifinals ─ where it will face Oregon ─ with a 78-75 victory. Jabari Bird and Charlie Moore led the Bears with 26 and 21 points, respectively, with Bird scoring the last five points for Cal.

Entering the game, the Bears had struggled massively on offense, in six games entering the postseason as well as in their first-round matchup against Oregon State. But this time out, the Bears’ offense came out firing on all cylinders, hitting nearly 50 percent of their shots in roughly the first 10 minutes. They were aggressive in attacking the basket and quickly earned three trips to the line.

But the Utes were at least as good, starting 7-11 from the field. Kyle Kuzma, the Utes’ leading scorer, who combined for 35 points in the previous two meetings against Cal, started off in traditional fashion. He had seven points in the first six minutes. Kuzma then left the game for a brief rest, and the Bears immediately scored four unanswered to go up 17-13.

Cal started running a seldom-seen backcourt press midway through the period ─ as Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin reached deep into his bench earlier than usual ─ and the Bears were able to force the Utes into rushed halfcourt possessions.

Kingsley Okoroh put up a significant first half, with two consecutive powerful screen-and-rolls, one of which resulted in an offensive rebound and a putback and the next on which he was fouled, leading him to put the Bears up 22-18 after making a free throw.

Ivan Rabb had a decent first half as well, with six points and three rebounds, but picked up his second foul (both offensive) and had to sit the final 5:25. The Bears, however, survived that time without their anchor down low with offensive rebounding and long offensive possessions.

While Utah finished the half shooting 56.5 percent, compared to Cal’s 37, the Bears had outrebounded the Utes 18-9 and led 12-0 on second-chance points to stay in the game. The teams headed to the locker rooms tied at 30.

Cal started the second half just as hot as the first, with a layup by Moore and a jumper by Rabb. But Rabb quickly picked up his third foul chasing down a fast break for Utah, and Martin pulled him immediately.

The Utes had their best chance to pull away during Rabb’s second prolonged absence, but Cal responded even better this time than it did in the first half. But again Okoroh stepped up, with crucial blocks and rebounds. First, an altered shot and a rebound, both by Okoroh, led to a quick Grant Mullins three on the other end to put Cal up 38-32. A few minutes later, Moore nailed a beautiful up and under reverse layup, and Bird drilled an open three to put Cal up 44-35.

Kuzma hit a layup to cut the Cal lead to 45-40, but Moore answered right back, pulling up and hitting from 30 feet. Moore clearly had the hot hand as he converted on another smooth scoop layup and, a few minutes later, on a ridiculous desperation bank from the top of the key as the shot clock expired. The latter of those buckets gave the Bears their second 10-point lead at 60-50 with just more than seven minutes remaining.

After Cal took its largest lead at 70-59 with 2:44 remaining, a successful backcourt press by the Utes cut the lead to 73-72 with less than 30 seconds left, but Bird saved Cal once again ─ as he did with the game-winning alley-oop in early February ─ with an and-one and clutch game-clinching free-throws.

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