BERKELEY -- No. 2-seeded California may not have won pretty on Wednesday night, but it did live to see another day in the National Invitation Tournament, downing No. 7-seeded Utah Valley 77-64 in the first round at Haas Pavilion, thanks to a second-half surge powered by senior Jeff Powers, who, just over one week ago, said his role was just to "come in when somebody gets hurt."
"There's no rust on this machine," Powers deadpanned to start the postgame presser. "I'm always around my teammates, and they always keep me uplifted and stuff like that, and I love basketball. I'm doing what I love."
Powers – who hadn't played in 11 days -- went 4-for-7 from the floor in the first 11 minutes of the second half, including two crucial three-pointers to stake the Bears to a 64-47 lead before he went off for Christian Behrens. The senior finished with 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting in 21 minutes.
Without starting center Richard Solomon (concussion) and true freshman big man Kameron Rooks (foot), and in front of an announced crowd of 1,670, the Bears (20-13) cobbled together a starting lineup centered around distribution, and that's exactly what the offense had to depend on against the Wolverines (20-11), as lone big man David Kravish -- playing in the middle of a four-out lineup – scored a team-high 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting.
"It's different, because Rich demands a presence with his rebounding and his athleticism on both sides of the court," Kravish said. "It was a little different. I got used to it after a little bit in the beginning, but it's kind of a look into next year. I've got to get used to playing without Rich. It's something to get used to."
Solomon was unavailable for comment, and neither players nor coaches offered up much on how he concussed himself, or exactly when. Kravish hemmed and hawed when asked when the team found out about Solomon, saying "about a couple days ago, I think. It wasn't sure, but it was kind of a thought."
Powers said that the team was not told when exactly Solomon went down. When asked, Montgomery was not immediately forthcoming with a time frame for when Solomon was concussed.
"I don't know," Montgomery said. When pressed if it happened during the Pac-12 tournament or practice, Montgomery said, "No. It happened in his apartment at home.
"Hopefully we'll have him for Monday," Montgomery continued, citing the second-round rematch with Arkansas. "You don't know. These things take a little bit of time."
Without Solomon, five Bears scored in double figures and Cal surpassed 70 points for the first time since a Feb. 23 win over USC.
"With Richard being out, we had just said, Rick [Kreklow] and Jeff are going to be the four, so he knew he was going to play," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "Jeff's stayed pretty attentive to shooting the ball and sticking around and hoping for another opportunity like this, and it came. He did a really nice job. Jeff can shoot the ball. There's no question about it. Athletically, I think he wasn't overmatched in this particular game, so it was a little easier for him to defend, but the ball moved. We were 10 to 3 assist-to-turnover in the first half, and ended up 20 to 7, which was good for us. We said, ‘Let's get 20 assists,' and we did. The ball was moving, we were getting good shots and everybody got to play. I thought that was a real positive."
Freshmen Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird combined to go 9-for-15 from the floor for 24 points, with Mathews going off from beyond the three-point arc, shooting 3-of-4 from long distance.
"I think, without Richard, I had a little bit more of a chance of playing," Powers said. "I was prepared. I'm just happy that we won, really. A postseason win's always good."
Without Solomon – the Pac-12's second-leading rebounder – the Bears only held a 19-17 rebounding advantage over the Wolverines at the half, and allowed seven points off of three turnovers, and despite a 43-34 halftime lead, looked to be in danger of a first-round exit.
"They're very well coached," Montogmery said. "The thing you need to understand, is 10 out of those 12 kids have been on a Mormon mission, so if you have a senior, you're talking about a 25-year old man. All five starters, they've got experienced guys. They've got older guys that know how to play, and I'm telling you, that kids from Utah know how to play basketball, and they're very disciplined, and they executed the heck out of it. We knew that. They ran a whole bunch of stuff to the extent that we didn't even bother showing them a bunch of their plays, because there's too many. There's too much stuff to try and show them. They back screen, they flare screen, they rub screen, they bring people around. The good news for us is, with that kind of execution, they're not able to jump above you or run past you."
Cal had lost eight of 12 games heading into a regular-season finale win against Colorado, but fell to the Buffaloes in the second round of the Pac-12 Tournament this past week in Las Vegas to drop out of consideration for the NCAA Tournament and right into the NIT.
Utah Valley – the regular-season WAC champion making its first NIT appearance – kept things relatively close throughout much of the first stanza, going into the break down 43-34, with the margin thanks largely to a 10-0 Cal run from 10:55 to 7:06.
"Frankly, had we not shot the ball a little bit, it could have been very dicey," Montgomery said. "They execute extremely well. If you could ever really get really good athletes to execute like that, boy, you'd be really, really good, because they execute. They make it tough on you."
The Wolverines battled back, though, getting the game to within two points with 6:12 left. Cal freshman guard Sam Singer then drove the lane and kissed in a runner off the glass with his left hand, and Tyrone Wallace -- who started the game shooting 0-for-2 from the field before turning his focus towards driving the lane – hit a one-hander from the right elbow to give the Bears a six-point lead.
Defense was a bit of an issue in the first half for Cal. The Wolverines – who came into the game shooting 43.7% against a schedule that included just two ranked teams (losing to Oklahoma State and Oregon by a combined score of 162-94) – shot just 40% from the field, but buried 4-of-11 from beyond the arc, including 3-of-4 from guard Holton Hunsaker.
"The coach's son, he can really shoot the ball," Montgomery said of Hunsaker. "He did a good job, made a believer out of us, 5-for-8 from three, but we knew he could shoot the ball. I coached against his dad way back when I was at Montana, and his dad played at Weber State, and I watched Dick coach at Utah. He took over for [Rick] Majerus when Rick got sick and boy, he was intense. We knew what we were going to get."
The second half saw perhaps Cal's most confident offensive performance over the past two months, as the Bears started out 1-of-5 from the field before hitting five straight buckets and three straight from beyond the arc, thanks to Powers going off for two of those three, including one on a no-look backwards bounce pass from a breaking Cobbs.
After the third trey in a row, the Bears would not lead by less than 13 for the final 13:16 of the game, as the Wolverines came back to earth in the three-point department, going just 2-for-7 and losing the rebound battle, 17-16.
Cal plays in a Maui Invitational rematch on Monday at 8 p.m. at Haas Pavilion against Arkansas.
"It'll be interesting to see how far each team's come, given that we played so early in the season and it was a preseason tournament," Kravish said. "Now, it's the last tournament of the year, so it'll be interesting to see how far each team's come."
When the Bears and Razorbacks last met on Nov. 25, Cal downed Arkansas 85-77, with Solomon contributing 11 points and seven rebounds before suffering a corneal abrasion in the second half and leaving the game.
"That's a pretty good deal to be able to get a team like Arkansas on your home court in mid-March," Montgomery said. "If you think about it, that's a pretty good deal. We should be excited about that. If you want to see some athletes, come on out Monday. They've got some. They're going to pressure you for 40 minutes and 94 feet. We played them in Hawaii early, and they force you up and down the floor. We were playing very well at that point, so it'll be an interesting match-up. I'm sure they'll be fired up, ready to go. That should be a real challenging game for us."
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