It’s not about how you start –– it’s how you finish.
While Cal started out slow against Southern Utah, it flipped the script and turned the game into one of its best performances yet of the young season. In a double overtime thriller, the Bears toppled the Thunderbirds, 75-68.
To open the game, the blue and gold coughed the ball up five times before they got on the board. In what initially seemed like a lackluster effort, the home team couldn’t score for more than 13 minutes after missing its first seven shots.
On top of their offensive struggles, the Bears could not contain the Thunderbirds’ John Knight III. The strong, 6’3” guard effortlessly slashed his way through the paint, having himself a half to remember with 16 points on 7-9 shooting. If the Bears wanted to have any semblance of a comeback effort, they knew they’d have to take the ball out of his hands or force him into tough shots.
Yet, despite the sluggish start on both ends, the Bears remained steadfast in their effort to win, as they managed to only be down four points at halftime. However, while the namesake break usually denotes that a game is “halfway” done, little did both teams know that it had only just begun.
The second half started off similar to the first for the Bears, as they got off to another slow start. A four-point lead ballooned to a 10-point lead just more than six minutes into the half, and it looked like Cal was en route to its third loss in four games. Moreover, the blue and gold still had no answer for Knight III, as he already tallied 21 points with about 13 minutes left in the half.
“He’s (John Knight III) a matchup nightmare for us,” said head coach Mark Fox.
When all looked lost, Fox made his biggest adjustment of the game. With 13:44 left on the clock, he assigned freshman Sam Alajiki to defend Knight III.
“I thought Sam Alajiki came in and changed the entire game,” Fox said. .
From that point on, it was all Cal. The Bears stormed back with a fiery 12-2 run, tying the game at 46-all with just under nine minutes to go. It was anyone’s game, and with clutch baskets from both teams, Haas Pavilion saw two overtime periods. It’d be here that the blue and gold eventually prevailed.
Regardless of the defender, great offensive players find ways to score. The key to guarding those scorers is about forcing them into tough shots, which is what Alajiki did to Knight III.
As the Thunderbirds’ leading scorer, Knight III managed to end the game with an impressive 31 points on a respectable 12-23 clip. If we take a closer look though, Knight III shot a pedestrian 5-14 in the second half and overtime periods, thanks in large part to Alajiki’s lockdown physicality.
“We finally found someone that could match up with his (John Knight III) strength. That kid is powerful,” Fox said.
Aside from Alajiki’s standout defensive performance, the Bears also had a few impressive offensive show outs from their veterans in the frontcourt in Andre Kelly and Grant Anticevich.
Kelly led the Bears’ offense, tallying 29 points on efficient 11-16 shooting on the night. Meanwhile, Anticevich chipped in 15 timely points of his own, keeping the Bears ahead or within striking distance throughout pivotal moments in the game.
While this was an exhilarating match to watch, the Bears still have much to improve on. Careless play, such as unforced turnovers and nonchalant defense early in the game, is the reason why the Bears needed to mount a comeback effort. These habits may very well come back to haunt Cal against more disciplined and talented teams, which is why it must learn to keep its foot on the gas throughout all quarters.
“If we made those plays at the start of the game, then we wouldn’t have found ourselves in that position at the end of the game,” Anticevich said, “So that’s something that we’ve got to work on –– playing for the whole 40 minutes and having a good start to the game.”
In order to stave off unexpected losses, the Bears should stick to the script.
Justin Kim covers men’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected].