BERKELEY -- My notes said it was a mismatch: the California Golden Bears had been dominant in their first two games, winning by comfortable margins of 19 and 27. The Oakland Golden Grizzlies had been blown out in 2 games in the first half, trailing by 27 and 20 at halftime to North Carolina and UCLA. Putting logic and thought together, one would think the Bears would run away with this one early.
But as the old saying goes, the games are never played on paper. The Bears were anything but dominant, struggling early against Oakland's 1-1-3 zone defense before storming back to beat the Golden Grizzlies 64-60.
Luckily, my notes also had freshman Jabari Bird's name circled as a player to watch. I could not have been more right.
The Bears had issues with Oakland's aggressive zone defense, playing passive and conservative basketball on the offensive end. Rather than run the point of attack and force the issue inside, the Bears became too dependent on their big men making plays on their own, resulting in contested shots close to the basket. Oakland's aggressive defense committed to the double team on Richard Solomon and David Kravish, oftentimes forcing the handler into turning the ball over.
"It was really hard to penetrate," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "It's a 1-1-3 zone and I ran it for three years. It's a different zone. There are areas that you have to attack. We didn't attack it very intelligently."
The result was a halftime deficit, and some adversity. The Bears trailed Oakland 30-24 at the break, behind 33% shooting from the floor, 53% shooting from the line, and an utterly disappointing 2:9 assist to turnover ratio.
In that first half, the Bears took 21 shot attempts. Of those 21 attempts, 11 shots were from within 5 feet. Given Oakland's struggles dealing with UCLA center Tony Parker in the previous game, the Bears strategy to attack down low seemed like a smart idea.
But the manner in which the Bears attacked inside was not effective. The Bears relied too heavily on big men Kravish and Solomon making plays on their own, rather than find the open man in the offense and force Oakland's defense to spread to the perimeter. The ‘zones' that Cal needed to attack were simply not attacked, and the Bears found themselves on more than one occasion trapped by two defenders.
Combined with a few missed dunks and blown fastbreak layups, the Bears finished the first half only 5-of-11 on shots within 5 feet of the basket (45%) with most of the 11 shots being contested.
The one caveat was that the Bears drew fouls, but could not take advantage at the line, hitting only 8-of-15 free throw attempts in the first period. All in all, Cal's struggles in spreading the floor and hitting free throws resulted in the 6-point deficit.
In the second half, the Bears decided to make a more conscious effort to find the open man against the Grizzlies zone, even if that meant shots further from the basket. That open man oftentimes became star freshman Bird, who took full advantage of the space in front of him.
As Montgomery noted in the postgame, the Bears did not attack Oakland's 1-1-3 defense the way it needs to be attacked. However, they utilized the basic basketball principle of making quick passes to get defenders out of position, and then finding the open man to make a shot.
That man was Bird, who exploded in the second half, scoring 19 points en route to a career-best 24. His 5-of-7 shooting from three-point range in particular acted as the catalyst for the offense, forcing Oakland to spread the floor further defensively and allow the Bears to operate a bit more smoothly inside on the offensive end.
The results are obvious on the stat sheet. Cal attempted only eight shots from within five feet in the second half, but converted on six of them (75%). The Grizzlies' defense keying on Bird, meaning more time and space for Solomon and Ricky Kreklow to operate down, and the Bears took advantage.
It also helps that Cal was far more effective in converting from the line in the second half, hitting 11-of-14 free throw attempts (79%). The result was a 40-point second half outburst against the same zone that game them fits just one stanza earlier, with the Bears just doing enough defensively to avoid the upset. After 2 assists and 9 turnovers in the first half, the Bears managed to get 9 assists with only 4 turnovers in the second half due to the better spacing and ball movement.
Even with the better offensive execution, the Bears needed Bird for one final big play. With the game tied at 56 and 1:25 left, Kreklow found Bird wide open one more time on the opposite side of the court. Bird hit the go-ahead trey to put Cal ahead, and the Bears never looked back.
"Basically, I caught it and was open, and had been hitting three's all night," Bird said postgame. "If we were going to lose this game, I wanted to lose the game with that… but it went in and we won."
ANALYSIS: In the Zone
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