Cal looks to pour salt in Utah’s wounds in conference rematch

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Antonio Martin/Senior Staff

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For all intents and purposes, this is Jordan Shepherd’s team now.

After Cal announced that senior Andre Kelly would miss the rest of the season with an ankle injury –– Jordan Shepherd, a Charlotte transfer, has taken on more of a load offensively. He has been taking considerably more shots to try and regain some of the firepower lost with Kelly’s injury. And with a recent stretch that has seen Cal win two out of their last three games, it’s clear that his success and the success of the blue and gold will be strongly linked for the rest of the season.

Now, Cal will need those offensive heroics if it wants to exact revenge against Utah on Feb. 19. The Utes reigned victorious over the Bears, 66-58, on Dec. 5 (until February, it was their only conference win). In a match that saw neither team catch fire from the field, the late-game misses were what drowned Cal’s final comeback attempt. The drop-off in field goal efficiency was stark: 50% in the first half compared to 30% in the second.

In different ways, Cal has managed to show its resilience throughout the early part of the month to overcome those late-game troubles. The blue and gold went 6-11 in the final five minutes of regulation against Washington State, showing the offense’s ability to step up when needed. 

Four days later, Cal went up against the Beavers. What it lacked in field goal production against Oregon State, it made up for with frequent trips to the foul line and a defense that held up just enough. On Feb. 12, and in arguably its best win of the season, Cal rode an efficient shooting night to keep up with an Oregon team that shot better after intermission.

“I just feel like we’ve been playing a lot harder,” Shepherd told Andy Katz following Cal’s win at Oregon. “We come into every game with the mentality that we can win. We’re not letting this 10-game losing streak that we had get in the way… we’ve just been staying the course and staying poised and coming to every game just trying to play hard.”

The Bears will need to continue playing hard to win on Saturday. The Utes will undoubtedly come into Haas Pavilion motivated to reverse its recent bad fortunes, which have come in the form of losing two of their past three games. 

The key to the Bears’ success might lie in the way they defend against the Utes’ offense. Utah’s third-best conference ranking in assists per game is a noticeable difference from the Bears’ past four opponents, all of whom rank outside the top three in that category. However, there are some lessons it can take from its recent stretch, most notably its 24-0 scoring run against Oregon. Cal effectively defended drives to the basket to make Oregon settle for threes, and it might have to do the same against a Utah offense that ranks No. 1 in the Pac-12 in free throw percentage and racked up 42 points in the paint against Colorado.

Cal forward/center Lars Thiemann will also have to contend with Utes center Branden Carlson, who is averaging 13.8 points per game on 53% shooting. Thiemann himself, in a five-game stretch starting in place of Kelly, sports a similar shooting average of 54.5% to go along with 7 points per game. 

Whatever fans want to say about the performance of this year’s Bears, there’s no doubt that they expect to win straight from the opening tip, and Saturday’s game will be no different. It will be interesting to see if they can end their week by exacting revenge on a conference foe.

Ali Fazal covers men’s basketball. Contact him at afazaldailycal.org.