It takes a village: Cal’s team effort narrowly defeats Utah in overtime thriller

Lisi Ludwig /Staff

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It was going to take everybody. Utah was locked and loaded from the outset, whipping out career-best performances, hitting miraculous shots and demonstrating the grit and grime that only winning teams possess. If the blue and gold wanted a victory, they needed something more. They needed their cavalry.

And Cal showed up.

In numbers.

Five Bears scored in the double digits as Cal narrowly defeated Utah 86-79 in a home finale overtime thriller that saw the blue and gold lose their lead late in the second half before ultimately snatching victory from the jaws of defeat in overtime. This win gives Cal sole control of eighth place in the Pac-12.

The game was Cal’s Senior Day and off the tip, senior guard Paris Austin started his final 40 minutes (and then some) on Pete Newell Court with his signature play — a drive to the basket followed by a classic lay-in to give the Bears the opening lead. He wasn’t the only player to battle inside as Cal scored its first 8 points in the paint to give itself an early 8-2 advantage.

Utah responded in kind, scoring 8 of its own, including a pair of layups from forward Mikael Jantunen, to give its squad the lead.

After a quick exchange between the Matt Bradley-led Bears and the Utes, the bruise ’em and lose ’em blue and gold delivered the toughest blow yet. Forwards Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich each grabbed an offensive rebound, both of which led to second-chance points for the Bears. With 5:58 left to play in the first, Cal had secured both the lead and the momentum.

But just when the pieces seemed to be falling into place, the puzzle came shattering to the ground. The offense went into a 2:43 long scoring drought and Utah capitalized on the opportunity — flipping its offensive strategy and opting for perimeter jump shots from Alfonso Plummer. His 5 quick points gave the Beehive State team a 21-19 advantage. That lead would hold as the half winded down and the Bears went to the locker room down 28-24.

It was a tough half for the blue and gold offensively, as Cal shot 31% from the field and a miserable 20% from three. Kareem South and Austin, both of whom struggled against Utah in their previous meeting, were black holes on their last night in Haas Pavilion. The duo hit only one of 10 field goals in the first half.

The saving grace for Cal was its ability to rebound. The blue and gold came into the game ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in boards per game, but the story on the glass was flipped for once as the Bears edged the Utes 20-17 in the first half.

“Our guys did such a good job at getting to the rim and drawing away the help defense,” Anticevich said of the team’s season-high 18 offensive rebounds. “It gives us rebounding opportunities.”

Down but not out, Cal came out with a different energy and game plan as the offense quickly shifted away from its guard-oriented drive-and-kick strategy to focus on Anticevich. The 6’8” Australian hit a long-range bomb and followed it up a few possessions later with an and-one bucket that gave Cal the lead for the first time since 3:18 left to play in the first half.

Anticevich wasn’t the only Bear to deliver quality minutes as freshmen Joel Brown and Kuany Kuany, both typically role players, had extended playing time as Cal attempted to wrestle control away from Utah. Brown contributed a layup and flashy assist to Anticevich and Kuany followed his lead with a 3-point play to secure the Bears’ hold on the game. Every member of the blue and gold was contributing in one fashion or another, Haas Pavilion was exploding and it looked as though Cal would win its final homestand.

But Utah refused to wave the white flag. After a second-chance score from South, the Utes rallied with a layup from forward Timmy Allen and a contested 3 from Plummer that cut the lead to 1. Austin, the veteran starter and one of Cal’s go-to men in the clutch, went to the line with the chance to seal the game.

After hitting the first, he clanked the second, giving Utah the thinnest of opportunities. But the Utes take miles when given inches, and a pair of free throws by Both Gach sent the game into overtime.

In overtime, despite the blown lead, the pressure of Senior Night and the Pac-12 playoff implications, Cal maintained its composure and controlled the game from the outset. Four Bears put points on the board and Brown stood stout defensively with a steal and two forced turnovers as the blue and gold completed their season at Haas with a victory.

While Bradley is normally the star of note for the Bears, highlighting any one player as the difference-maker against the Utes would be an exercise in futility. Austin, Antecevich, Kelly, Bradley and Brown all scored 10 or more points, and even those without substantial box scores such as South and Kuany made their mark with impact buckets at crucial moments.

“On Senior Day, it took just about everybody to get it done,” said head coach Mark Fox.

Fox’s emphasis on the fact that it takes a village didn’t end with his praise of the players, as he also credited the fans for their part in helping Cal win.

“The fans today had a huge impact on the game. They actively participated in it,” Fox said. “We have to establish that we are going to be really hard to beat at home, that we are going to play well and that our fans are not only going to come, but they are going to roll their sleeves up, and today they did that.”

With this win, the Bears’ final record in Berkeley moves to an impressive 12-5.

Regardless of the caliber of the team they faced, from rival Stanford to then-No. 21 Colorado, the blue and gold proved this season that despite the doubt, the criticism and the vitriol, they are the big men on campus.

Cal is finally at home in its Haas.

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.