LOS ANGELES, Calif. — There’s nothing like the promise of free food to get a crowd up on its feet.
Around the 10-minute mark of the second half, Cal freshman Jacobi Gordon headed to the line for a pair of free throws. The proposition: Should he miss both, every single one of the Trojan faithful would be rewarded with a world-famous Chick-fil-A® chicken sandwich. Not a problem, right?
Though there was a lot of ballgame remaining when those two free throws clanked off iron, the misses sent the USC faithful into a munchies-laden frenzy. Everyone was eating tonight. Just not Cal men’s basketball.
The Bears would leave Galen Center hungering for that delectable first win of conference play, falling to the Trojans, 82-73. Much like the first game of conference play last year, a thrilling comeback against Stanford on the road, Cal found itself buried in a 15-point hole to USC with 11 minutes remaining in the contest.
The Bears fought their way back into the ballgame, trimming that lead to as few as 4 points, but they couldn’t complete the comeback effort.
“I thought the fight was there,” said Cal head coach Wyking Jones. “We had some open looks that we normally knock down. Had we shot the ball a little better, it would’ve been a different game.”
USC headed into the ballgame already paper-thin, with Kevin Porter Jr. still injured and Jordan Usher having transferred, but the team suffered yet another blow when Elijah Weaver tweaked his ankle during walkthrough in the hours leading up to the game.
“We’ve had so many freak things happen,” said USC head coach Andy Enfield. “It seems like guys get injured every week. It is very challenging. It is hard to get in a rhythm. We need our guys to get healthy.”
With yet another rotation player missing in action, the Trojans entered the ballgame with only five rotation players, and Enfield had to fall on J’Raan Brooks and Victor Uyaelunmo to get his starters some rest.
But even a depleted USC team has enough weapons on the floor to remain competitive, and the struggling squad was firing on all cylinders last night.
Nick Rakocevic picked apart Cal’s defense down low en route to a career-high 27 points, 20 of which came in the second half, while Derryck Thornton dropped a career-high 12 dimes. Bennie Boatwright chipped in 19 points as well.
Rakocevic and Thornton weren’t the only ones raising the bar. Cal sophomore Justice Sueing feasted on the boards en route to recording 16 points and 11 rebounds for his first career double-double, while Connor Vanover totaled a career-high 10 points and three blocks in his return to the floor.
Sueing and Vanover made it splash from downtown as well, hitting three and two 3-pointers, respectively, on a night when Cal shot 27 3-pointers.
Cal, a team that came into the game averaging about 18 threes attempted per game, was forced into taking the three because of the Trojans’ stifling zone defense. In their half-court sets, they swung the ball around the perimeter, looking for a point of attack, and when nothing was there, they settled for the long ball.
The Bears did hit 10 of 27 threes, but with the paint sealed off, their point of attack was limited. When someone tried to drive to the rim, especially from the corners, they’d be met with a double team and have to give the ball up.
Freshman Andre Kelly was especially limited to the zone. Cal typically likes to get the ball to him in the low post, but the opening was never there. Kelly could be seen calling for the ball in the high post as well, a classic counter to the zone, but ballhandlers just couldn’t get him the rock on either spot.
“They forced us to shoot 27 threes,” Jones said. “We are a very good shooting team. I’m OK with us shooting 27 threes against a zone that was very tight and prevented us from getting inside the paint. I wish we would’ve made more.”
Cal went with a zone of its own early in the game, but the adjustment that defined the team’s night on defense was the use of only one true big man.
In the past couple games, Jones has typically rolled with two big men for rebounding purposes. Despite having Vanover at his disposal, Jones opted for lineups featuring only one big man to have more shooting on the floor.
“We go with our lineup with Paris (Austin) and Darius (McNeill) and Matt Bradley and Justice (Sueing), now you got four guys that can shoot the ball,” Jones said. “I just felt like it gave us the best opportunity to score.”
Cal will conclude it’s two-game Southern California road trip when it plays UCLA on Saturday at 1 p.m.