Like a skeleton in a basketball team’s proverbial closet, early-game deficits can come back with a vengeance in the waning minutes of a matchup. For the Cal men’s basketball team, a 10-point deficit accumulated in the first six minutes of the Bears’ game against UC Riverside would prove to be a hole too deep to climb out of in Cal’s 74-66 loss in its season opener.
“We dug ourselves into a big hole in the beginning, and for any team it’s hard to get back from that,” said Cal freshman forward Justice Sueing. “We have to work on getting a better start and from there we’ll keep improving.”
The Bears offense, quite simply, was slow to get going. Cal went scoreless for over six minutes, finally getting on the board after a drive to the basket from junior guard Don Coleman. By that time, though, the Bears had found themselves down 10-2, a deficit that would haunt them for the remainder of the game.
The deficit was the result of a couple of factors — chiefly an unorganized and ineffective press on the part of the Bears that lead to easy baskets for the Highlanders, compounded by poor shot selection and ball movement from Cal. The Bears’ zone defense, too, provided the Highlanders with easy opportunities, as the awareness of the weak-side man and tracking outside was often lacking, resulting in a switch to man-to-man by the end of the half.
To their testament, the Highlanders played effective offense in the first half, shooting 47 percent from the field and downing four three-pointers. On the other end of the court, the Bears shot just 20 percent from the field and saw baskets from just four players — none of whom scored in the double digits.
There were, however, shining moments in that first twenty minutes when it looked as though the Bears’ offense could get going. There was the small streak of five points when freshman guard Darius McNeill had a put-back layup followed by a three-pointer. Sueing also debuted his offensive prowess, showing smooth and comfortable handles on the ball that opened him up for a couple of nice chances and allowed him to draw defenders and find the open man.
But those moments were ultimately not enough to make up for a lack of overall offensive productivity, and the Bears went into halftime trailing the Highlanders 40-21.
The Bears came out in the second half with a clear change in offensive mentality. Pushing the ball up the court and appearing more aggressive at the rim, Cal was able to locate an effective offensive plan that had been absent in the first half. Coleman began the second half with an and-one layup that would start the Bears’ slow chip away at the Highlanders’ lead.
That chip away, which was lead by a more productive offense, was aided by a more potent Cal defense. Sticking with a man-to-man defense for the last twenty minutes of the game, the Bears were able to better guard the basket and hamper back-cuts that had led to easy baskets for Riverside in the first half. Emblematic of this tighter defense was an effort by the Bears that forced a Riverside shot-clock violation with a little less than five minutes remaining in the game, which subsequently lead to a transition and-one for Sueing on the other end.
The Bears were almost entirely the Coleman and Sueing show in the second half — with the freshman forward in particular showcasing his court vision and defensive chops on both ends of the court. Coleman finished the game with 32 points and Sueing with 13, the only two Bears to hit double-digits on the night.
Seniors Kingsley Okoroh and Marcus Lee, who were undoubtedly important on the defensive end for the Bears, were markedly absent offensively. While Okoroh registered seven blocks, he compiled just five points, with Lee adding just eight.
“It’s got to get better — it’s as simple as that,” Okoroh said.
Sophie Goethals is the assistant sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].