BERKELEY -- The California Golden Bears may have come into their match against Washington State at 4-0, but their performance against the 11th-place Cougars was anything but perfect.
Even without guard DaVonte Lacy, the Cougars executed on the offensive end and frustrated the Bears defensively, before Cal finally ran away in the second half to win 76-55 and find themselves at 5-0 in conference for the first time since the 2002-03 season.
A key playmaker for the Bears not only in the Saturday matinee, but all season, has been forward Richard Solomon. The 6-foot-10 senior has become a key piece for Mike Montgomery's team, with dominant defensive play and rebounding and a much improved post game.
That did not change at all for Cal against the Cougars, as Solomon positioned himself exceptionally all game to get perfect looks at the basket. Against Washington State, Solomon continued his resurgent season, scoring 12 points while grabbing 9 rebounds and blocking three shots.
In the first half, though, Solomon struggled to get the basketball and emphasize his presence down low. In the first 20 minutes, with the Cougars routinely setting up their zone defense, Solomon only had 3 field goal attempts, converting 2. His first field goal attempt was a beauty, as he beat his defender cutting to the basket, as junior David Kravish found him for the dunk. With 4:43 left in the half, Solomon managed to overpower his defenders in drawing the foul, hitting the layup.
But while both plays emphasized Solomon's overall power and ability in scoring the basketball, the Bears struggled to get him looks, and just could not find that consistency necessary inside to pull ahead quick, up only 34-33 at halftime.
"Richard's maturing. What I told him at one point, I said, ‘I'm looking at your face and I'm just seeing a blank slate. I don't see a lot of emotion here. I don't see a lot of wanting to do certain things,'" Montgomery said. "He got a shot block late, ended up with three, I thought there were a couple others. He could have been a little bit more of a shot-blocking presence inside. It was just this notion. I don't know. One o'clock game, Saturday, Washington State, I mean, it's like this whole thing of, ‘What do I need to do here to get this thing over with?' I think there was a sense of that across the board."
The second half, however, returned to the narrative we expected to see, as Solomon finally got his touches and repeatedly dominated inside the paint. In the final 20 minutes, Solomon went 4-for-6 from the field—all dunks—while grabbing six rebounds. His dunks came all as a result of solid positioning, both while coming off screens and grabbing offensive rebounds leading back to put-back dunks. His most dominant stretch put the game away, as he managed to convert dunks on 3 straight possessions to up Cal's lead to 52-37 at the midway point of the second half.
"I thought we had any number of possessions where guys caught the ball and just kind of shot, just because, rather than get themselves, work to getting the spot where they're going to get plays. Now, what we did do is we had some nice penetration on drops and Richard got some dunks, which really helped getting going a little bit," Montgomery said. "At the end of the day, if he didn't get any shots, and it was all drop-offs and offensive rebounds, he's still going to end up with a double-double. That's what we'd like him to be able to do."
As Solomon found his looks down low, the other Bears took full advantage of open looks elsewhere due to the defense repeatedly collapsing, leading to 42 second-half points on a ridiculous 70% shooting from the field. As a result, the Bears finally pulled away, and turned a surprisingly close contest into another blowout.
Such has been the theme for Cal all season: when Solomon dominates inside, the Bears have a much easier time playing the game at their tempo on both ends of the court. 2 of the 4 losses suffered by Cal occurred when Solomon was out with an eye injury in Maui, where the Bears were repeatedly torched on offense and on defense. Other than that, the Bears have found ways to dominate in the post early, and set up the rest of the team late.
In their 5-0 conference start, Solomon has averaged 14 points on 64% shooting from the field, with 10.2 rebounds per game and 1.2 blocked shots. In short, Solomon has dominated the post through the first 3 weeks of conference play, and the Bears have followed that up with the aforementioned perfect start. Safe to say, if Cal is to remain perfect and competitive, the Bears will need Richard Solomon to maintain his presence in the post.
ANALYSIS: The Solo Show Again
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