Sometimes the narrowest victories reveal the most. Cal men’s basketball proved a lot of things after defeating UNLV 79-75 in overtime, and they are good news for Bears fans.
“I think this is what is going to shape our identity, is just our toughness,” said guard Kareem South. “Like I said, in the moment of truth, it is about the team that is more tough and I think that’s what we showed today. Again, we are just going to keep on trusting the process and trust what our coach has told us for the next game plan to succeed.”
The first half was a back-and-forth offensive shootout with Cal shooting 63% from the field and UNLV shooting 59%. Neither team was able to get separation on the scoreboard, as each shot was answered almost immediately by an effort from the opposing team. Of the 37 total times the ball went in the basket, 19 of them were lead changes and six were to tie the game. After the dust settled, the Rebels held a 2 point advantage over the Bears 40-38.
Heading into the locker room, both coaches were hoping to improve their team’s defensive strategies for the second half. The Rebels had not forced a single turnover from the Bears, while Cal had forced only 4.
UNLV and Cal each had only two players that combined for more than half their points. Matt Bradley had 15 points and seemed to single handedly keep the Bears in the game as he emerged, for the second game in a row, as the home team’s go-to shooter. Paris Austin added an extra 10. Amauri Hardy was consistently hitting three-pointers for the Rebels, sinking 3 and tallying 11 total points.
“I thought the difference — and I told the kids at halftime — I said the first team that starts playing defense is going to win,” said head coach Mark Fox. “In the second half, both teams decided to start playing defense so I think what the difference in the game was the turnovers. In the second half, they had 12, we had 5. I thought that was really what was the deciding factor. We just kept battling, we just kept playing hard and found a way to win.”
The second half was certainly better defensively for both teams — Cal shot only 38% from the field and UNLV shot only 39%. This style of play, however, appeared to benefit the Rebels more than the Bears. In the second period and overtime, Cal led for only 3:41 while UNLV led for 18:29. The Bears just weren’t able to keep up as Bradley started slowing down his production. The Rebels were able to extend their lead to as much as 9 points when there was only 5:58 left on the clock.
This is when the Bears were able to prove what kind of team they are. In the last five minutes of regulation they went on an 11-2 run to force overtime. They brought that momentum into overtime as well when South hit a three-pointer for the first points of the period, and Cal held onto that lead for the rest of the game.
“I think down the stretch we were very locked in, we forced deflections and we were also able to get rebounds when it mattered,” South said. “Defensively I think we just picked it up when it was the moment of truth. We locked in and got the stops.”
Cal showed that they are capable of fighting back from a nearly 10 point deficit, and most importantly that they will not collapse under pressure. Winning a close game in this fashion shows a team’s spirit and determination more than a blowout win, and while beating midmajor schools may not be the biggest challenge for many teams, it is a marked improvement over the last two years for the Bears.
Cal will return to the court again this week as they start the 2K Empire Classic. The Bears will face California Baptist today and Prairie View A&M on Monday before heading to New York to finish the tournament at Madison Square Garden.
The California Baptist Lancers, who play in the Western Athletic Conference, are currently 2-1 after defeating Jackson State and California Lutheran but losing to Texas 54-67 in their most recent game Tuesday in Austin. California Baptist will travel again this week to Berkeley where Cal is favored by 3.5 points. If the Bears are able to hand the Lancers another loss, then they will be 3-0 for the first time since 2015.
Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at