BERKELEY -- In sports, the old chestnut says, the game is won in the final period. However, on Wednesday night, the game was essentially determined in the first 10 minutes, as UCLA asserted just the type of game it wanted to play early on against California. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the 86-66 score seemed but a formality.
The Bears (17-9, 8-5 in Pac-12) fell behind at the half for the sixth time in 13 conference games, the fourth time trailing by double digits. Cal is now 1-5 in those games, and has now dropped three of its last four games at Haas Pavilion.
"It's not like we haven't seen it before," head coach Mike Montgomery said of his team's slow starts. "I'm not looking for silver linings. I'm looking for a basketball team that will compete and win."
The theme on Wednesday night was tempo. The Bears would try to effectively utilize their size and turn the contest into a half-court matchup. The Bruins (21-5, 10-3) would try to make game to go fast, fast, fast -- combining high-pressure defense with continuously pushing the ball up the court at every given opportunity.
Based on the score alone, it was clear who dominated the tempo. UCLA wanted to get the score into the 80s, and the Bruins did so easily, pummeling the Bears behind 56.9% shooting from the field.
The first half was completely dominated by UCLA, which came in averaging 83.1 points per game on the season. Even though the Bruins had only 7 fast break points, UCLA's defense smothered Cal's interior game, forcing missed shot after missed shot. In the first half, the Bears' usually dominant big man duo of David Kravish and Richard Solomon combined for a mere 5 points on 1-for-4 shooting. Kravish didn't wind up scoring a single point in the half.
"We didn't pass the ball very cleanly to him (Solomon), for one," said Montgomery. "Half the time, we hit him in the ankles. They were dropping in help. They were bringing in people and loading up on him, so when he tried to move, there were probably two or three people surrounding him and that's where we've got to be better coming back out with the ball. There's got to be somebody open when the ball goes in and they double or triple or bring people in to help. We're not doing a very good job of that."
Cal's inability to establish inside the paint meant more forced outside shots for the Bears, which they struggled to hit. Cal shot a mere 39.3% from the field, with buckets coming primarily from the freshman duo of Jabari Bird (9 first half points) and Jordan Mathews (8 first half points). Those two combined to go 6-for-10 in the first half, while the rest of the team went 2-for-10.
The poor shooting meant more transition opportunities for UCLA. While the Bruins didn't necessarily capitalize directly from the break, their pushing the ball up the court created early mismatches for the Bears on defense, resulting in easy shot attempts as Cal was just too slow to recover rotating to help.
"That's one thing that we talked about, consistently, was recovery," Montgomery said. "We said, ‘We've got to have four people back, because they run the wings, and you can't just go pick up your man.' Early on, they really were running. Their wings really run, and because they're pretty confident in either (Kyle) Anderson or the Wear twins' ability to rebound the ball, they don't worry much about it. I think the two wings just take off, and they go, and they're fast, so now, Anderson does as good a job as anybody in the country probably at pass-advancing, and now you're stuck one-on-one with a guy who's got a full head of steam, and we did get hurt with that, early."
UCLA managed to convert 17-of-33 first half shots (51.5%) -- the 33 shots alone indicate just how fast-paced the first half was, and how the Bruins just simply dominated the pace of the ballgame.
"I thought the pace of the game was fine," Bird said. "They made plays and we didn't. If we could have made some open threes or some drop offs or free throws, it could have been a different game, but we didn't."
The Bruins' smothering zone defense also forced 6 California turnovers, which directly led to 8 points on the other end, with six of those coming before the 10 minute mark in the half. The Bears just could not control UCLA's speed and athleticism on both ends, resulting in a 44-32 halftime lea.
The second half was much more of the same, with the Bruins starting fast -- hitting 11 of their first 16 shots -- before voluntarily slowing down the tempo after building up a 26-point lead. The full court press and zone defense forced an additional 7 turnovers in the second half, leading to 12 more points on the other end. While the Bears managed to hold UCLA to only 11 transition points -- well below their season average -- the difference was that UCLA managed to play fast, and fully exploit Cal's slow feet on defense, as a result of mismatches created by them pushing the ball quickly into the frontcourt.
The Bears wanted to slow the tempo down and rely on Kravish and Solomon inside, and got very little production. The two wound up combining to score 14 points on only 5-for-9 shooting, to go along with 6 turnovers. The lack of assertiveness meant forced shots outside, which meant only more opportunities for UCLA to push the ball. As a result, the tempo consistently favored UCLA, and Cal just could not recover.
Moving forward, Cal's chances for a conference championship have essentially evaporated, with no real shot after losing three of their last four conference home games. In all their losses, the Bears have started with some early deficit that would wind up being just too much to overcome. With five games left in the 2013-14 season, Cal would be wise to find ways to assert themselves earlier in games, and make it easier to play to their strengths for the full 40 minutes.
"I would say this game probably takes us out of the opportunity to win the league – we were probably a long shot before, but I think that probably puts that to bed," Montgomery said. "We're trying to finish top-four. We lost. It's unfortunate that Arizona doesn't have to play UCLA again. I mean, really, if you look at it, those teams appear to be the best two teams, and UCLA doesn't have a chance to get back at them. We've just got to win as many games as we can, try to get in the top four, and not spend a whole lot of time dwelling on this game."
The conference championship may be out of reach, but a tournament bid is still there.
Publisher Ryan Gorcey contributed to this report.
ANALYSIS: Push the Tempo
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