LAS VEGAS -- Let's be honest: This was a game that California needed Colorado to win. A second-round Pac-12 Tournament win over USC by the Bears would have meant nothing in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and Cal would probably have had to take another game in the Pac-12 Tournament in order to get in. What would that game be? Barring a stunning upset by Utah tomorrow at 12:06 p.m. at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, that would be No. 1-seed Arizona, the No. 4 team in the land.
Now, that doesn't mean Cal is off the hook. The Bears still need to beat the Buffaloes tomorrow at 2:36 p.m. (on the Pac-12 Networks) to have a chance get in to the Big Dance, as it would be a good notch on their RPI belt (Colorado is a top-50 team at No. 31) and could pull them up from the "first team out" territory.
"This is two teams that have battled each other, it's going to be an excellent basketball game," said former Oregon head coach and current Pac-12 Networks basketball analyst Ernie Kent. "They match up very well. Colorado has gotten a game out of the way. They've got their tournament win out of the way, they're in the NCAA Tournament now in my opinion. Now they can play really freed up. Cal has that pressure to win a game to get there (to the NCAA Tournament) so advantage Colorado in that area."
Thursday's afternoon matinee will be anything but a cake walk for the Bears, who lost eight of 12 before defeating the Buffaloes by one point in overtime in the season finale in Berkeley.
On Wednesday, Askia Booker played like a man possessed down the stretch for the Buffaloes, and the Bears barely contained him last time out in Berkeley, holding the junior guard to 5-of-13 shooting for 11 points and seven rebounds.
Booker was instrumental in the final minute of Colorado's tilt against the Trojans, as a layup from USC's Byron Wesley cut the deficit to three with 47 seconds remaining. With 32 seconds left, Booker faced down Pe'Shon Howard, taking the shot clock down to three seconds, Booker jab stepped and then dished to Xavier Talton, who's long two-pointer clanked. But, Booker raced under to grab the offensive board on the baseline, threw it off the legs of USC guard Julian Jacobs and out of bounds. Colorado ball. Game. Set. Match.
"I think we need more plays like I had tonight: Those winning plays," Booker said of Thursday's rematch with the Bears. "Cal is a very good team, especially with Justin Cobbs and Richard Solomon. Those two players, they lead their team very well. Although it was a close game, we just played them, and those guys are just as capable of making the plays that we are, but it's going to come down to who is mentally tough. Coach [Tad Boyle] uses those two words a lot, and tonight, we were mentally tough and we're going to have to carry that over to tomorrow."
"It was a hustle play, it got us an extra possession, we knew they had to foul us," said Boyle.
The Buffaloes took a two-point lead into halftime against USC, but soon found themselves down by five with 10:43 to go in the game.
At that point, Colorado rallied, led by Booker, who hit a pull-up jumper and got the and-one to cut the deficit to three.
Booker then answered an up-and-under lay-in from Howard with a sniper shot of his own from the top of the key, bringing the Buffaloes fans in the arena to their feet.
Inspired by Booker, Xavier Johnson drove baseline and drew a crucial fourth foul on Omar Oraby, thereby opening the floor for big man Josh Scott.
Scott overcame early troubles against USC's bigs to have a nice game in the second half. The one thing I didn't see from Scott was that he didn't assert himself at all against Oraby and Nikola Jovanovic, or even D.J. Hayley, tonight, so if Richard Solomon and David Kravish can do what they did last time out -- double Scott and get physical with him -- they'll be able to hold him in check. That doesn't mean, however, that the Bears can just pull a set-it-and-forget-it with Scott. He's a big, physical presence when he wants to be, and there's no time like do-or-die in the Pac-12 tournament to be that presence. Scott was 0-for-3 in the first half, but finished 4-for-14 from the floor, and pulled down five second-half boards – including three on the offensive end.
The question for Cal will be if Solomon gets challenged by Scott, how will he react? Will he shrink, as he did for much of the stretch run, or will he answer, as he did in the season finale? It's all about mental toughness.
The last time these two teams faced one another, the Buffaloes got out to a fast start on the offensive boards, and wound up out-rebounding Cal, 45-35, with both Scott and Booker reaching double digits on the glass.
Asked what turned the tide in the second half on Wednesday, when the Buffaloes tore off a 13-1 run, Booker pointed squarely at Scott.
"This man, right here," Booker said. "He kind of got upset about us turning the ball over, because he knows it was allowing them to get out in transition and get easy buckets. But at the end of the day, defense is not the only thing. You have to take care of the ball. At the end of the day, you can't get your defense set if you turn it over and they're in transition and scoring easily buckets. I think we just wanted to eliminate those easy buckets and make them score over us in the half-court set."
The good news for Colorado is that the Bears operate almost exclusively out of the half-court set, and they are by far not one of the better teams in the league in transition, nor are they a team that forces a lot of turnovers, which was the recipe for USC in the first half, when the Trojans forced nine turnovers to just five assists for the Buffaloes.
Cal has forced the third-fewest turnovers in the Pac-12, while Colorado has turned the ball over the third-most in the league. As we saw on Wednesday, extra possessions could mean all the difference for who comes out on the winning end, this time. As Boyle hammered home to his players: It's all about who's tough enough between the ears to make those plays when it counts.
ANALYSIS: Bears and Buffs, Round Two
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