Without senior center Richard Solomon -- who was back at the team hotel resting a corneal abrasion in his right eye, suffered in the second half of Monday's win over Arkansas – California played No. 8 Syracuse as close as the Orange have been played all year. The Bears looked comfortable on the perimeter, were able to get out in transition and senior point guard Justin Cobbs atoned for his turnover issues the night before, swiping four steals and adding eight assists to just three turnovers.
However, just as the score of last season's NCAA Tournament exit for Cal at Syracuse's hand was far from indicative of how close the game itself was (it wasn't), so, too, was Tuesday's final margin -- 92-81 -- a bit misleading.
"We saw just a different team," said Orange head coach Jim Boeheim. "I thought watching Cal yesterday that their team this year is much better than last year's team. I just think [Jabari] Bird is one of the better freshmen composure-wise that I've seen. And he gives them a really steady guy. It's just such a different team. I thought they battled their tails off, and it took a long time for us to get a solid run out of the offensive end. Those were unbelievable today. I didn't even know how good until I looked at the stat sheet. I knew they were pretty good, but they were better it was a really good battle."
Bird was among four Bears to score in double figures on Tuesday night (17 points on 6-of-12 shooting), with Cobbs leading the way with 18, David Kravish scoring 15 and Jordan Mathews contributing 12 points off the bench.
"I think without Richard, I think we had a great chance to win this game," Cobbs said. "I'm proud of these freshmen who usually didn't get the opportunity to play. They came in and stepped up, weren't afraid, and played with a lot of heart and confidence. I'm proud of these guys. But, yeah it did hurt us. It got us averaging the double-double, and doing what he does and bringing the intangibles that he does, without him on the floor, of course it's going to affect our team. We did miss on the night but it doesn't give us an excuse to why we lost this game, but, yeah, it did bother us that Richard wasn't on the court.
Cal spread the rebounding slack out across the entire lineup, with Cobbs and Tyrone Wallace pulling down five apiece, Kreklow pulling down four and Bird leading all Bears with seven boards - -just one shy of the game-high eight from Jerami Grant. Still, though, it was apparent on the defensive boards that Cal was lacking Solomon's 11 rebounds per game.
"I'd just like to say I'm proud of my team," Cobbs said. "I like the way we fought without our big guy, Richard Solomon. I think we played hard and gave them everything we wanted. Just couldn't pull it out at the end. Felt like they got a few calls on their side, which helped the game. But all credit to them. They played hard. I'm just proud of these guys and we'll bounce back tomorrow."
One of those calls was Kravish's fifth foul, which occurred at midcourt and was called several seconds after contact, with 2:53 left in the game and the deficit cut to seven points.
The primary reason Cal were unable to solve the zone late in the game and keep up with Syracuse's scoring was the absence of Solomon and Kravish, while even with just one of the two in the game earlier, the Bears were able to find the seams.
"It's a good zone. I mean, it takes away certain things," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "One of the things that obviously hurt us is where they're vulnerable on the baseline, if you could get it to the high post. Didn't think we did a great job of getting it to the high post and going low. David got a couple shots inside. Ricky [Kreklow] got one. But that would have been an area that I thought we could have exploited had we been a little bit bigger consistently which we weren't able to be without Solomon."
The Bears and the Orange were knotted at 41-41 at the end of the first half, and the see-saw battle continued into the second stanza. The Orange crept out to a slim three-point lead after two free throws by Grant -- who set career highs with 19 points and eight rebounds -- with the only remaining experienced Bears big man -- Kravish -- already limited with three fouls. Cal took another thumb to the eye, soon enough, as Kravish collided with Tyler Ennis underneath the basket for his fourth foul of the night, with 10:04 left, forcing Montgomery to pull the junior forward.
"Yeah, I think he's a really good player," Montgomery said of Ennis, who finished with a game-high 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting and 8-of-8 from the free-throw line, where Syracuse as a team went 23-for-24. "As a freshman we felt like maybe he was trying to defer a little bit to the veterans. I don't think we did a great job of getting him squared and making him shoot over the top of us. I thought we got a little lazy on the pick and rolls. Obviously we had to stay attached to [Trevor] Cooney. When he got to the basket, I think sometimes maybe the big guys were a little bit reluctant to come over. That's where typically Richard Solomon is very good at coming over and maybe getting some of those shots out of there. But I think our guys were a little bit reluctant. One, David got in foul trouble, and Kam [Rooks], not going to do that. So, yeah, he was more aggressive and better, and obviously was a huge factor.
Kravish came off the court, and Syracuse sprinted out to an 11-2 run, as Cal tried to maintain with overmatched true freshman seven-footer Kameron Rooks, who picked up his first foul as soon as he got into the game.
With the Bears shorthanded to begin with, Boeheim said that his centers "really exploited" the added absence of Kravish.
As the game got away from Cal over the next five minutes, Montgomery – out of real options down low -- put in an all-guard lineup, with Ricky Kreklow serving as the biggest man on the floor.
"We just have to understand that you have to be better than a team like this," said Montgomery. "You're not going to get even up and win. So you're going to have to be better, and they played pretty well. We did a decent job on [C.J.] Fair. He's quite an athlete. Their two guards really hurt us off pick-and-rolls, and that was a little inexperience with our big guys in terms of how to handle it. With one day prep, we probably weren't able to do the job we needed to do."
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