For the second time this week, Cal men’s basketball put up a valiant performance at home and came up just short of an upset. Despite injured stars returning and career-highs set, the Bears fell 76-68 in a close game to the USC Trojans and dropped to 2-8 in the conference.
“Our team competed hard, but we just made too many little errors throughout the first 39 minutes of a game that just cost you,” said Cal head coach Mark Fox. “We have to learn how to be just a little bit more stable as we play.”
The Bears started the game reeling, as Trojan guard Tahj Eaddy scored five points in the first 40 seconds of the game. Cal’s zone defense allowed USC star freshman Evan Mobley to repeatedly draw fouls while the Trojan defense limited the Bears to rushed attempts at the end of the shot clock. Mobley had made six from the charity stripe after just four minutes.
Junior guard Matt Bradley checked in shortly after but didn’t look like himself — Cal’s leading scorer had missed five straight games due to an ankle injury. Eventually USC’s lead had stretched to 11, but the Bears drained three straight baskets in just more than a minute to put the Trojans on their heels.
Cal fought for the rest of the half and forced USC to play the slow, defensive, turnover-filled game that the Bears know best. Then, with just a little more than five minutes left, Bradley hit a three to give the Bears a 25-24 lead — their first of the game.
“It was time to bring [Bradley] back. He obviously hasn’t played five-on-five basketball for three weeks, so we were unsure what we would get from him,” Fox said. “Under the circumstances, he did a really nice job. I thought he competed hard, and it was nice to have him back.”
The blue and gold held the lead with as little as a minute left on the clock, but a last-minute push from the Trojans sent everyone to the locker room with USC holding a 35-34 lead. Both teams had nearly identical stats at the half, with Eaddy and Mobley leading the Trojans in scoring and Grant Anticevich and Joel Brown leading the Bears.
“Obviously, Evan Mobley is an elite talent and really just a marvelous player,” Fox said. “He’s a once-in-a-decade talent … Late in the game, we considered going to double team him, but they were shooting well from three so you’re trying to pick your poison.”
Baskets from Anticevich and Brown gave Cal the lead early in the second half, but USC was able to take it back until a four-point play by Jarred Hyder put the Bears up 42-40. As the half continued, the two teams went back and forth with the blue and gold playing at a much faster pace than usual.
Anticevich carried over his hot streak from the previous game and scored 15 points on 50% shooting while Brown set his career-high of 15 points on six-for-eight shooting. However, it wasn’t enough, as Mobley kept racking up free throws, and the Trojans were able to stay just ahead of the Bears. Andre Kelly and D.J. Thorpe even fouled out late in the game as Mobley ended with 15 free throws.
“I mean, today, I was just being aggressive,” Brown said. “My teammates did a great job executing on plays that opened lanes for me.”
There is nothing shameful about having lost to both UCLA and USC — two of the best teams in the conference — this week, but it must sting for Cal to know that victory was within its grasp each time.
“Reflecting back on the last two games against UCLA and USC, coming down to the wire. We’re getting there, we just need to do a better job executing towards the end and finishing strong,” Brown said. “We got the pieces, and we’re going to continue fighting forward and learning from these losses.”