Bears seek to keep their streak as Ducks fly into town

Josh Kahen/Staff

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Haas Pavilion may as well be magic at this point — Cal men’s basketball is 9-2 inside the arena this season and 0-8 outside of it. It’s more than that as well, with the hallowed ground giving players the power to make clutch plays like the ones which sealed wins against Washington State, Washington and most recently, Stanford.

On Sunday, in front of a season-high of 9,000 fans, Paris Austin clinched the rivalry game with two free throws, and the Bears remained undefeated at home in conference play. On Thursday, that record will face its toughest challenge yet as Cal hosts No. 11 Oregon.

“It’s a great win because our team is fighting to rebuild the program and those kids deserve to be rewarded,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox after the Stanford win. “It’s a great win because we had great fan support and they were right there with us. It’s a great win because we beat a good Stanford team. It’s a great win for a lot of reasons, but every win counts the same in the standings.”

The Ducks, who peaked as high as No. 4 in the rankings during week nine of the season, are 17-4 and have an impressive four wins over ranked opponents. In Pac-12 contests they are 6-2, but in that stretch they are only 2-2 on the road. With a little Haas magic and thousands of fans, this game will certainly be a hostile environment for Oregon.

Winning won’t be easy for the Bears, however, as long as the Ducks have Payton Pritchard. The senior guard and Oregon native is averaging nearly 20 points per game and is currently tied for  the conference scoring title. He also leads his team with nearly six assists per game.

The other starters for the Ducks aren’t slouches either, with four players averaging eight points or more and Chris Duarte, a junior guard, hauling in 5.7 rebounds to go along with 14 points a game.

Earlier in the season the Bears had trouble defending skilled guards, but they appear to have improved during conference play. Just this past weekend, they held Stanford’s starting guards to 15 less points than their first meeting.

“It’s a testament to us trusting the process, we just kept on fighting and that was the result of the game,” said guard Kareem South. “We just kept on being physical, kept on fighting.”

South started the season hot, reaching double-digit scoring in nine nonconference games, but has fallen into a scoring slump recently. Before Sunday, he had reached 10 points only once in five Pac-12 games played and dropped zero points in 22 minutes at UCLA. He returned to his normal self against Stanford scoring 13 on 5-11 shooting, which he will need to keep up if the Bears want to walk away with a win against the Ducks.

“In practice, Coach gave me a lot of good advice: just to stay confident and trust my shot,” South said. “One thing that he told me was just to work on my follow-through and hold my follow-through, and that’s what I practiced on throughout the week.”

Austin also had a terrific game against Stanford, with 15 points and a game-high four assists. The triple threat of Matt Bradley, Austin and South is exactly what Cal needs to spread the defense and open driving lanes. The Bears are far more successful when they drive to the basket instead of taking rushed jump shots.

“He’s practiced unbelievably. He’s had a terrific attitude the last week or 10 days,” Fox said. “I’m really happy for Paris — he’s a great kid who has been through a lot, he’s had a lot of different coaches, but he’s always open to coaching.”

Cal will enter this game with a lot of pressure. Oregon has won the last five matchups between the teams and is fighting to keep its spot atop the Pac-12. A Bears win would secure their spot as a team that has a legitimate shot at the conference title in March — something no one dreamed of happening a few months ago.

“I think they just have invested so much,” Fox said. “When you demand so much of young people, when it gets to those moments of truth they fight a little harder.”

Trilok Reddy covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].