The Cal men’s basketball team (7-13, 1-6) has been defined by the duality of basketball it plays in the first half versus the second half of games. While the Bears tend to sputter out of the gate, they kick it into high gear after a trip to the locker room.
But this brand of basketball is equally as exciting as it is dangerous, and Cal suffered the consequences of relying on this model of play yet again as its comeback effort fell short in a 81-73 loss to No. 16 Arizona State (15-4, 3-4).
The Sun Devils led by as much as 15 points in the second half, but behind a scorching hot second-half offense that shot 55.2 percent from the field, the Bears crept back into the ballgame, cutting the deficit to as little as four points.
“We’re having better starts,” said head coach Wyking Jones. “We’re coming out the gates ready to play, ready to compete. It starts there, not having the big deficits at halftime and having such a hole to climb out of.”
But Cal could only only go blow for blow with one of the nation’s best offenses for so long, as Arizona State strung together a game-clinching run in the waning minutes of the second-half run and kept Cal searching for its next victory.
The loss extends the Bears’ losing streak to six, a stretch that has spanned three weeks. Cal will have to wait an additional couple of days before its rematch with UCLA.
“(Arizona State is) a very good basketball team,” Jones said. “They’re experienced. Tra Holder seems like he’s been there forever. They made the right plays at the end and we did a good job of crowding them in the paint, but they kicked it out and their guys hit shots.”
Senior Marcus Lee, one of many Bears who has struggled since conference play began, had one of his better offensive performances of the season, tying his season high with 23 points on 10 of 13 shooting from the field. Lee would leave some points behind at the charity stripe as he only connected on three of his 10 free throws.
“After the first touch, (the team was) like, ‘Alright, you have an advantage, so we’ll keep going to you,’ ” Lee said. “So the confidence that my team gave me — that they saw — kind of helped me keep going.”
Freshman Darius McNeill busted out of a mini-slump, scoring 16 points and splashing home four 3-pointers. McNeill’s performance marks the first time he’s touched double-digits in the scoring column since Cal’s 107-84 loss to UCLA.
“It came down to me just being aggressive and playing my game,” McNeill said. “The past couple of games, I was just being timid like the first couple games of the season. This game, my coaches sat down with me and told me to play my game and just play through our offense and be aggressive at all times. So that’s what I did.”
Fellow freshman Justice Sueing contributed 12 points to extend his streak of games scoring double-digit points to seven.
“(Sueing) has been our most consistent player in conference play,” Jones said. “We have a lot of faith and trust in him to go out and make plays. We put a lot of pressure on him to deliver for us, and he’s done a great job at this point, and I don’t anticipate that changing.”
Jones started senior forward Kingsley Okoroh over struggling junior guard Don Coleman, marking the first time Coleman hasn’t started this season. In his first game off the bench this season, Coleman posted 10 points, four rebounds and two assists in 29 minutes.
“We just wanted to go with a bigger lineup,” Jones said.
The Sun Devils came into the ballgame with a reputation as one of the premier offenses in the country, but they didn’t look the part early on, only mustering six points in the first seven minutes of play. A team which entered the night shooting 47.7 percent from the field, Arizona State only connected on 7 of its first 20 shot attempts.
Arizona State’s slow start provided Cal with an opportunity to keep the game relatively close even as the team had its own struggles from the field. The Sun Devils would put together a couple of high energy plays in the first half, but the Bears would respond with a counter to stay in the ballgame.
Lee was at the head of that counterattack, whether it was a thunderous, two-handed slam or a fadeaway in the post. Even after their opponents opened up an 11-point lead at halftime the senior’s hot shooting kept the Bears within striking distance.
Lee, however, could only do so much on his own. Much to the tune of recent losses, Cal’s offense would fall into offensive funks which lasted minutes at a time, allowing Arizona State to slowly expand its lead. Aside from Lee, the Bears shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half of play.
While the Sun Devils struggled to string together buckets in the first 10 minutes of regulation, they broke out of their slump as the first half progressed, feeding off the Bears’ miscues and expanding their lead. Despite the slow start, Arizona State would finish the first half shooting 45.7 percent from the field, ultimately building a 15-point lead early in the second half.
Despite Arizona State being on the cusp of running away with the ballgame, Cal came out with plenty of juice in the second half as well, rattling off an 8-2 run over the course of a minute-and-a-half to keep things interesting. And as the Bears cut the lead, Haas Pavilion grew louder and louder.
For much of the second half, the Bears and Sun Devils would trade haymakers. Just when Arizona State established a little bit of breathing room, Cal would muster just enough life to keep itself from fading.
With about two minutes remaining in regulation, the Sun Devils’ lead stood only at six, but the Bears’ tank would hit empty at just the wrong time. Arizona State matched Cal down the stretch with timely buckets and kept the Bears at bay.
“They’re a talented basketball team,” Jones said. “They’re a top-25 basketball team for a reason.