“Quit playing games with my heart / Quit playing games with my heart (with my heart) / Before you tear us apart.” — Backstreet Boys
Who better to sum up Cal men’s basketball than the signature boy band of the late ’90s and early 2000s? The Bears continue to be a roller coaster of inconsistency, with flashes of brilliance that are often overshadowed by long stretches of ineptitude and clumsy mistakes.
The Bears played poorly in the first half. They found themselves down by 2 points at halftime to a clearly inferior San Jose State team, as Cal shot a paltry 36 percent from the floor and 28 percent from beyond the arc. The second half was the polar opposite, with Cal shooting 57 percent from the floor and 54 percent from 3-point range to hold on to an 88-80 win versus the Spartans.
Quit playing games with my heart, Cal basketball.
The win put the team back on track after a poor performance in a loss against Fresno State on Wednesday. It was the Bears’ fifth win on the season and their third victory in the past four games.
“I’m very happy with the win,” said head coach Wyking Jones. “It felt like it was a complete team effort, which is always what you want.”
Darius McNeill and Andre Kelly poured in 22 and 19 points, respectively, helping propel the Bears to victory over the Spartans after an uneven first half that had Cal fans nervous heading into halftime, with the Bears down, 32-30.
The Bears forced 10 turnovers in the first half but were unable to build a lead off such impressive defense, as the Spartans stayed in the game with efficient offensive play between hitting eight of their 10 attempts at the free-throw line and shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc. Cal, meanwhile, shot poorly, hitting on only five of 18 attempts from three as they tried to break out of San Jose’s zone defense.
Apart from Kelly, who had 12 points at the half, the rest of the Bears looked indecisive and listless, perhaps a bit surprised at the fight the less-talented San Jose State squad was showing after surrendering an early 7-0 run to the Bears.
Oumar Barry, the Spartans’ lone senior, led San Jose with 12 points at the half, helping them establish a presence in the paint as they shot 48 percent from the floor, while the rest of his teammates did all the little things to help the Spartans sneak up on the Bears.
The Bears responded to the deficit by coming out of the locker room with a new-look full-court press defense that clearly rattled San Jose State and energized the Bears to build a lead they were ultimately able to hold on to.
“We talked about it at halftime. … They were too comfortable in the first half. … The defensive pressure was not there,” Jones said. “I said, ‘Miss or make, let’s pick up full court.’ … It gave us more energy, more life on the defensive end but also on the offensive end.”
Cal opened the second half on a 9-0 run to take a 39-32 lead with four different Bears scoring during the stretch. The Bears eventually extended the successful play into a 20-4 run that had Cal leading, 50-36, with 14:19 left in the half.
No other player symbolized Cal’s second-half resurgence better than McNeill, who scored 17 of his season-high 22 points after halftime, hitting four 3-pointers after only making one of six attempts during the first half.
“I felt the relief. The first half, it wasn’t falling. The coaches kept telling me to have confidence in shooting the ball,” McNeill said. “Paris kept feeding me. … He just kept passing it, and I kept knocking it down.”
The old hoopers’ axiom that “shooters shoot” is one familiar to all players but not necessarily easy to believe in without reassurance from teammates and coaches.
“My teammates just kept telling me to shoot it, and I know my work ethic, so I wanted to just keep my follow-through up and keep shooting,” McNeill said.
Coach Jones echoed his lefty shooter’s sentiments, explaining, “I talked to him at halftime and said, ‘Keep shooting the ball.’ They play pack line and they help off the wings, and every time Paris got in the lane, they helped off Darius, and it was easy to just kick out and get a good look.”
Furthermore, Kelly finished the game with a double-double, playing with the confidence and skill of an upperclassman, far exceeding his youth and limited college experience.
Roman Davis provided much-needed energy in the second half and performed even better than the stats suggest, as he was exactly the kind of spark the Bears needed to take control of the second half. Matt Bradley played 22 minutes off the bench, hitting three of six shots from the field — all from beyond the arc — and converting on all his seven free-throw attempts. He also did an impressive pin block that garnered a few “oohs” and “ahs.”
The game got a little too close toward the end of the second period as the Spartans went on an 11-0 run to cut the Bears’ lead to 4 before Paris Austin closed the game out with four clutch free throws.
A few parting notes:
— Cal showed some encouraging growth on the offensive end, as the team finished with a season-high 20 assists on only five turnovers — a season low.
— Austin dropped a career-high 11 assists with zero turnovers.
— Cal took a season-high 31 3-pointers and made 12. The Bears currently lead the Pac 12 in overall 3-point shooting percentage.
Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].