When the Cal men’s basketball team took the floor at Haas Pavilion on Monday afternoon, it wasn’t quite how the squad remembered it. With no Cal faithful in the stands, home terrain felt foreign. Student-led cheers were replaced by chants from the home bench, and chatter among players suddenly felt more meaningful.
But as soon as the lights went low, the Bears were ready to defend their den. And defend they did, gutting out a 60-49 victory over Nicholls State.
From the opening tip, the game promised something different than what was seen in Cal’s victory over Northwest on Thanksgiving. After scoring a season-high 86 points in their previous game, the Bears struggled to find offensive rhythm early on, shooting a putrid 27% from the field in the first half.
Cal’s early challenges weren’t for lack of effort, however. The Bears, despite their sloppiness, were clearly hustling, snagging seven offensive rebounds to give themselves extra chances — but they also had just as many turnovers in the first half. Missing its first three attempts from deep, shooting only 50% from the free-throw line and trotting out a bench that only contributed 2 points certainly didn’t do head coach Mark Fox’s team any favors in the first 20 minutes of play.
But what Cal lacked on the offensive end, it more than made up for on the defensive side. Forcing Nicholls State into 11 first-half turnovers, which resulted in 12 points, the blue and gold found offense through their defense. Andre Kelly smothered the Colonels for five first-half rebounds and was all over the court, recovering loose balls and disrupting shots.
The Bears’ suffocating defense lasted only to a point, however. Ty Gordon, the Colonels’ leading scorer and reigning Southland Conference Player of the Week, was bound to find his shot. After a three from junior Matt Bradley that extended Cal’s lead to 15, its largest of the game, Gordon marched Nicholls State back. Over the last six minutes of the first half, the Colonels tore off a 12-2 run to make it a low-scoring 23-18 contest at the half.
Nicholls State came running out of the gates to open up the second half, scoring 5 unanswered to tie the game at 23 apiece. After a few substitutions, however, Bradley and the Bears were ready to stop the bleeding. Another Bradley three put the Bears back on top, and they never looked back.
Cal’s offense thrived much more in the second half. The blue and gold shot 60% from the field and more than doubled its first-half count. Beyond 9 bench points, the Bears found success in the familiarity of their starting lineup: Bradley poured in a game-high 26 points, while forward Grant Anticevich scored a season-high 11 points.
Anticevich, the only senior on the team, notched his first 3-pointer of the season in the first half and finished the night with three under his belt. Perhaps the most important one came with just under four minutes remaining in the game: The bucket pushed Cal’s lead to 13 and was part of an 11-0 blue and gold run that put the game just out of the Colonels’ reach.
Ultimately, Fox’s squad did enough down the stretch to secure a victory and bolster the second-year coach’s 8-2 home record against nonconference opponents. But there is always room for improvement, and the Bears will certainly look to ignore their first-half woes and replicate their second-half success on offense in the Pac-12 games to come.
A performance like tonight’s probably won’t be enough to come out on top against the likes of Arizona State and UCLA, which Cal will see later this week. Fox and his players will be the first to tell you that, and anytime one looks to be better after a victory, there’s reason for optimism.
Kabir Rao covers men’s basketball and is a deputy sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].