MORAGA, Calif. — Home crowds don’t just fill a gym with a cacophony of noise; they can take an opposing team out of a game, diminishing their confidence and transforming the most basic of game plans into a series of mental gymnastics.
In its first visit to McKeon Pavilion in three decades, Cal men’s basketball became the latest victim of the Saint Mary’s Gaels’ ferocious, unfettered fan base, falling 84-71 in its first true road game of the season.
While most of Cal’s fan base was recuperating from its loss to Stanford in the 121st Big Game, the Saint Mary’s faithful had juice from the jump.
The student section was engaged from the moment the ball was tipped off, picking on the Bears for every little mistake, providing some much-needed energy for their boys on the floor. When Cal sophomore Justice Sueing was called for a travel in the first half, the student section immediately got on his case and chanted, “You can’t do that.”
“They fed off of their crowd,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “Them coming off a four-game losing streak, you knew that they would be prepared and be ready tonight. They fed off the energy of their crowd. Typically, I would want us to be able to come in and silence the crowd, but we weren’t able to do that tonight.”
Fueling that rabid fan base was lights-out 3-point shooting by the Gaels. Rain in the East Bay may have ended after the morning, but Saint Mary’s provided some late-night showers by knocking down 13 3-pointers on 25 attempts.
Led by freshman Dan Fotu, who was a perfect four of four from the arc, three Saint Mary’s knocked down at least three 3-pointers.
The Gaels’ open looks were a function of excellent ball movement, often resulting in easy jump shots. On the flip side of that coin, Cal devolved into its old ways with a lot of hero ball, finishing the evening with a pathetic six assists on eight turnovers.
“That’s a problem,” Jones said. “That’s a problem, and we have to fix that. And we will fix that. Moving forward, that won’t be a problem because right now, it’s too many guys going one-on-one, too many guys trying to take guys off the bounce and do it themselves and play hero ball.”
Led by Sueing’s 16 points, his second-highest total of the season, four Bears ended the game in double figures. The sophomore also chipped in three rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block in the loss.
“I’m just trying to do whatever it takes for our team to win at the end of the day,” Sueing said.
Cal and Saint Mary’s exchanged blows early in the first half, as the lead changed six times in the first seven minutes. Sueing had a nice sequence on both ends of the floor around the 18-minute marker, blocking a 3-pointer on one end and then hitting a shot at the other end.
The Bears held their ground in the early minutes, but at the halfway point, the Gaels began the avalanche, going on a 10-0 run over a 1:50 stretch. Freshman Andre Kelly hit a pair of free throws to stop the bleeding, but Saint Mary’s had established a double-digit lead and wouldn’t look back.
Over the last 10 minutes of the first half, Cal would be outscored 22-12 and entered the halftime break down 45-30.
The second half of play featured much of the same as the Gaels continued the onslaught. Cal tried to stop the bleeding with a combination of a soft press, a 2-3 zone and doubling the ballhandler when given the opportunity, but Saint Mary’s ball movement allowed them to constantly find open shots
On one possession, three Bears flocked to junior Jordan Ford as he crossed the half-court line and the point guard managed to find a wide-open redshirt sophomore Malik Fitts for 3.
Despite being down big, Cal managed to make this one a ballgame late in the second half when it rattled off a 12-0 run, cutting a 24-point deficit down to 12 points. That stretch, however, only delayed the inevitable as the Bears ran out of time.