Coming into their matchup against Washington State, the Bears had lost 32 of their last 33 road games. During Mark Fox’s tenure as head coach, the blue and gold had yet to find a win outside of Berkeley. Cal wasn’t just on the path less traveled — it was a broken van on the side of the road, desperate to reach the end of its long, arduous journey.
Then, the spark. The engine revved, the lights flickered on and Paris Austin, Cal’s only starting senior, took center stage. And the Bears never looked back.
Cal (11-15, 5-8) defeated Washington State (14-13, 5-9) 66-57 off the back of a dominating defensive effort and an efficient night from the free throw and three-point lines.
When the game tipped off, all eyes were on sophomore C.J. Elleby, who led the Pac-12 in points scored at home, averaging 21.1 points per contest. But the defense of Austin, who is 6 inches shorter than the 6’6” Washington State forward, was suffocating. The seasoned veteran played Elleby tight in the opening period, preventing Wazzu’s star from driving to the hoop or getting open on the perimeter and ultimately forcing Elleby to shoot 1-9 from the field. With its second-highest scorer Isaac Bonton out because of an injury, the home team could not find consistent offense, as evidenced by its poor shooting: The Cougars shot 8-30 from the field, including 1-11 from three before the break.
On the other side of the ball, it was an atypical half for the Bears. While Matt Bradley is often the engine that propels Cal to victory, it was the blue and gold ensemble that carried the early portion of the game. Five different Bears scored Cal’s first six buckets before forward Andre Kelly came to life.
With 15:02 left to play in the first period, the 6’8” big man took over on offense, scoring 6 of Cal’s next 11, including a mid-range jumper and second chance layin. Accompanying Kelly was forward Grant Anticevich, who scored 8 points in the opening half, including two long-range bombs. The Bears went into the locker room with a 32-20 advantage.
The blue and gold big men’s success in the opening 20 minutes can be attributed, in part, to the Bears’ ball movement. Joel Brown, who is starting his second consecutive game after replacing Kareem South in the starting lineup, dished out three assists and Austin added three dimes of his own to give Cal one of its best opening halves of the season. Coming into the game, the Bears had averaged 9.1 assists per game and were one pass shy of hitting that average in the first half alone.
What Fox should be most proud of, however, was Cal’s ability to maintain a solid rebounding pace despite being ranked last in the Pac-12 in boards per game. The differential on the glass was 19-16 in favor of the Bears as both teams headed to the break, and Washington State found itself completely locked out of the paint.
But the Cougars would not just roll over. Elleby came out of halftime swinging, scoring the first two buckets for Washington State with a strong drive to the paint and a breakaway basket off a forced turnover. A pair of free throws from the star forward cut Cal’s lead to 7 with 15 minutes to play.
Beasley Coliseum was popping even with less than stellar attendance, and the Bears were in an all too familiar position. The crowd was roaring, the offense was slumping and it looked as though it would be loss number 11 on the road for the blue and gold. But Austin would not back down.
A man of small stature but not of small heart, Austin drove into the forest and fought among the trees as he pushed into the paint, drew two fouls and hit four free throws. But more impressive than his ability to quell the rising storm was his continued lockdown of Elleby, who wouldn’t make another field goal until there were 55 seconds remaining in the game. The senior guard was doing it all, poking the ball away from the Cougars to prevent a fast break while grabbing rebounds and pacing a young Bears squad.
Washington State responded with an explosion of offense from Tony Miller and two quick threes from Jervae Robinson that cut Cal’s lead to 9. Despite the momentum, the mounting pressure and the offensive rhythm the Cougars had found, the Bears kept their cool. Austin came up big once again, drawing a charge and personal foul on Robinson in back-to-back possessions, ultimately causing Washington State to lose its second-best scoring option. Robinson had fouled out and the pendulum of victory had swung in Cal’s favor.
Wazzu continued to put the ball in the basket, but for every bucket it scored, Austin answered at the free-throw line. The seasoned veteran went a clutch 8-8 in the final five minutes from the charity stripe, and Cal ultimately walked away with its first road victory.
While much of the credit for the Bears’ performance should be attributed to Austin’s play, the win was an impressive group effort for a typically inconsistent ensemble. Kelly and Anticevich combined for 24 points and 9 boards, while Cal’s leading scorer, Bradley, had a quiet night with 11 points and 8 rebounds. Six members of the blue and gold scored at least 5 points, making this one of the Bears’ most complete games to date.
Cal will look to keep up its success on the road when the Bears take on the Washington Huskies at the Alaska Airlines Arena on Saturday. The game tips off at 3 p.m. and will be broadcasted on the Pac-12 network.