ANALYSIS: No Time For Nap Time

California was able to pull away from Utah after one more slow start, but cannot risk doing so in its final two games with so much at stake.

BERKELEY, Calif. – Ever wake up when your alarm goes off, then hit the snooze button to grab a few more minutes of sleep? Everyone does it. California certainly did, as that is the only reasonable explanation for its first-half performance against Utah.

How else could the Golden Bears have jumped out to an easy 7-3 lead, then fall behind 22-14, only to head to the locker room leading by 10 points? Cal woke up, tightened up its defense, tapped into its energy reserves, and started exercising better discipline with its shot selection.

That was enough to put away the struggling Utes, despite the presence of some talented cornerstones in guard Brandon Taylor and forward Jordan Loveridge. That won't be enough to put away resurgent Colorado, which has won eight of its last 10 games, in two days' time. Nor will be enough to put away desperate Stanford in the regular-season finale.

As well as Cal has been playing, with Allen Crabbe all but solidifying his status as Pac-12 Player of the Year after scoring 15 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season and sparking the 26-2 run that ended the first half and extended well into the second, with the conference title so tantalizingly close, it can't mask the fact that it needs to follow a very specific formula that has made that success possible.

That means playing defense all the time, not just when it suits them. That means resisting the urge to become an offense solely reliant on the three-pointer, even when the long bombs are hitting.

Cal neglected to follow through on those two points, giving Utah a fleeting moment of hope that it could ugly up the game and at least give the opposition a scare, as it has throughout the season with close wins and losses against Arizona, Arizona State, and the Buffaloes.

Loveridge and center Jason Washburn had success down low. Taylor found Dakarai Tucker coming free for a spectacular one-handed dunk on an alley-oop. Cal was settling for jump shots. It was everything head coach Mike Montgomery had feared, his nightmare come to life.

"We didn't come out with enough energy," said guard Justin Cobbs, who had 12 points and seven assists. "We came out thinking we were going to be able to walk all over them. That obviously wasn't the case."

Then the snooze went off and Cal woke up again, this time for good.

Lock-down defense fueled the offense, leading to 15 points off of eight turnovers. Utah would not score on 14 consecutive possessions, six before the half and eight after.

"We got moving and got stops and then as a result of that, we were able to get up 10 at the half," Montgomery said.

The difference, as always, was energy. Montgomery thought players looked past Utah and hoped that would not be the case against Colorado and Stanford, knowing both have already defeated Cal.

Cobbs was more direct in pointing to the team's issues with slow starts throughout the conference slate.

"I think we just lack self-motivation a little bit," Cobbs said. "We have to get down to get us going, which is not always the best thing. When we get down, we are able to sustain our energy and meet the energy that they are playing with."

But that is an incredibly reckless and dangerous approach, as Cobbs admitted, especially with such high stakes. A win on Saturday guarantees Cal a top-four finish in the Pac-12 standings and the first-round bye in the conference tournament that comes with it. Two more, and a little help, would result in a championship.

Cal was in this exact situation a year ago, losing twice at Colorado and Stanford come up just short of a title. That team was clearly fatigued and didn't have the benefit of playing at Haas Pavilion. Those are no longer concerns.

What is troubling is this tendency to fall behind early because it happens over and over again. The players are aware of it, the coaches harp on it, and it is still an issue. Cal was able to overcome it one more time against Utah.

So it comes down to Saturday, when everyone likes to sleep in or indulge in an afternoon nap. Cal, however, can do neither.

Dan Greenspan writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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