Focus must carry Cal to finish line

Commentary: Cal's showing against the Los Angeles schools show a team on the verge of taking control of conference race.

LOS ANGELES – Five teams are separated by one game for the Pac-12 lead, so why does it feel like the race is over?

Maybe it was seeing Washington get thumped by 25 at Oregon, maybe it was Arizona holding on for dear life against abysmal Utah, or maybe it was the historic sweep California completed this past weekend.

And that's the problem in this mixed-up conference, where there are no judgments to be made from any given development. What is becoming clear with three weeks to play is that the Golden Bears have the best team in the league, demonstrated by how the completion of their first season sweep of USC and UCLA since 1958-59.

Cal had different players step up at crucial times. Allen Crabbe came out firing in the first half at Galen Center, senior Harper Kamp breaking the game open in the second. Jorge Gutierrez delivered 10 points in the first half against the Bruins with Kamp and David Kravish saddled with two fouls apiece. Justin Cobbs picked up where Crabbe left off Thursday, delivering one of his best performances in his return to LA.

Kravish was a beast on the boards. Robert Thurman delivered his trademark hustle off the bench. Reserve guard Brandon Smith, who had struggled noticeably in his return from a concussion, got back on track. Even Bak Bak held down the fort for seven first-half minutes against the stout UCLA front line with the starters in foul trouble.

Everyone stepping up in the moment, delivering the necessary play, is what can put Cal over the top.

Arizona has more athletes, Washington better pro prospects, but no one can match Mike Montgomery's team for its ability to get contributions from anyone at any time.

The concern is that presence, that balance leads to lapses in concentration where each man on the floor waits for the others to make something happen. Cobbs even commented on it last week, in reference to the loss to Arizona, the only defeat at Haas Pavilion this season.

"You can't go out there and lose focus at any time because that moment can be the turning point of the game," he said, referencing how Cal opened up a 22-9 lead only to surrender a 36-12 run the rest of the half.

There were similar lapses, in the first half against USC, late in the second half against UCLA. Cobbs attempted an ill-advised dunk, Gutierrez an unnecessary baseline drive in that stretch against the Bruins.

Next month at Staples Center or in the NCAA Tournament to follow, those sorts of breakdowns could mean the difference between moving on and going home.

Players and coaches know it, which is why so much of the post-game commentary was about effort. Kamp referenced "urgency," Kravish spoke of "intensity."

They were able to find it late at the decrepit Sports Arena, forcing two turnovers and a missed shot while Gutierrez hit a free throw and Crabbe a three-pointer to restore order.

"We lost our focus towards the end and that's something we can't do," said Cobbs, who found a wide-open Crabbe coming off a screen for that spot. "That's our fault. We got to play a whole 40 minutes."

Call it what you want, but if Cal can harness it, a conference championship will be the reward.


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