With just 3:50 left in the second half, Jordan Mathews stepped up along the Syracuse bench and coldly sent a high-arching three-pointer splashing through the Madison Square Garden net, nailing a dagger that all but sealed an historic win for the California men’s basketball team. In addition to Mathews’s game-high 22 points -- 21 of which came in the second half -- the Bears played with a tenacious defense and Cuonzo Martin’s trademark fast-paced offense, running away with a resounding 73-59 victory over the No. 23 Orange.
“I thought they did a great job," Martin said. "The thing we talked about is, let’s finish ballgames. Whatever happens when we left the Bay Area we wanted to get better. When we land back in the Bay, we wanted to be a better basketball team regardless of the outcome. Sometimes you can lose ballgames and still make progress. I thought we got better in this game.”
Cal (3-0) opened the game knowing that it would need good three-point shooting and stubborn, persistent defense to defeat Syracuse, whose 2-3 zone has caused havoc for most opponents – including the Bears each of the last two seasons. Although both teams came out shooting poorly, Cal was nails from behind the arc, shooting 8-for-19 (42%), while limiting Syracuse to just 37% from the field and 27% from three. Cal was also able to break the zone with unselfish passing, totaling 20 assists on 26 field goals made.
“I thought the guys did a good job of carrying out the assignment from the scouting report from practice into the game,” said coach Martin at halftime. “It’s a long game and they’re a great team that makes you work for shots. [I thought] our guys did a great job.”
In the early going, the game was very sloppy with neither team starting off particularly strong, but with 8:18 remaining in the first half, down by one, the Bears made their move. Started by a David Kravish jumper, Cal went on a 23-9 run to close the half, helped by three Jabari Bird three pointers. The Bears never looked back, going into halftime with a 34-22 lead.
“At first we were a little stagnant," Bird said of the zone. "They were long out there and made sure we couldn’t get quick shots up. At first it’s a little tough but once we hit a few jump shots our confidence increased and we started making plays on both ends of the court.”
Cal started with the same lineup that had been so strong and high-scoring in it’s first four games, going with Tyrone Wallace and Christian Behrens to accompany Matthews, Kravish and Bird. Except for Behrens (who scored the Bears’ first five points), all starters ended the game in double figures with Bird contributing 16 points and finishing 4-for-5 from three, while Wallace added 12 points to complement Mathews spectacular second half performance. Kravish had another double-double, adding 12 points and 10 rebounds in a key role in the high post. His high-intelligence passing (five assists) and deep shooting range (he hit his second three-pointer in three games, and third in five if you count the two exhibitions) allowed the Bears to score easy baskets in the paint on the Syracuse defense, which stretched out to stop the three-pointers and left the middle of the zone open.
The undersized Behrens also may have only contributed six points but his defense was excellent, containing Syracuse five-star recruit Chris McCullough to just 12 points, mostly in the paint. Off the bench, many players impressed including freshman Kingsley Okoroh who played critical minutes defensively, and Dwight Tarwater, who added another three-point threat for the Bears.
“We just wanted to run everything through the high post," Mathews said. "We had a lot of action in the high post. Guys like David (Kravish), Dwight, Kingsley and Christian are great passers. We thought that was our main point where we could affect the zone and it worked.”
Point guard Sam Singer quietly had a very solid night, tallying four rebounds and a game-high eight assists and a team-high two steals.
Despite the height and depth disadvantages, Cal won the rebounding battle, 36-35, but lost the turnover battle, 15-12, which allowed for numerous second chance points for the Orange.
Syracuse were led by guard Kaleb Joseph, who seemed to be one of only two players that were capable of scoring against the Bears. He contributed 13 points on the perimeter, while star center Rakeem Christmas added eight points and eight rebounds inside, before fouling out midway through the second half.
"I though Cal was really good on offense at the end of the first half. We couldn’t get our offense going at all. If you score 20 points you are going to have problems," Jim Boeheim said. "Last year Cal scored 81 and we scored 91. Offensively we just aren’t as good as we need to be. We struggled offensively the last two games and again we have a freshman point guard, he’s learning the position and it’s going to take time. I just thought our offense put our defense in such as bad position that we could never get anything going. Cal moved the ball and they made some really big shots at the end of the first half.”
After halftime, the Bears maintained a fairly comfortable double-digit lead, continuing their relentless pressure, and improved their shooting to the tune of a game high 19-point lead with 15:07 remaining in the game.
Martin, who, as is his tradition, never sat down, worked a nine-man rotation to perfection, never letting the Orange truly get back into the game. Syracuse made a few runs, including a 9-4 run with eight minutes remaining to cut the lead back to 12, the closest the Orange would be in the second half. The Bears’ defense, starting with man-to-man and switching to a 2-3 zone at times, stifled the Syracuse defense throughout the last 20 minutes and keep the Bears coasting to one of the largest victories in program history, a win that Mike Montgomery was unable to get.
“It’s much different," Mathews said of playing for Martin. "If you are playing defense right by him, he’s on the sidelines talking you through the whole defensive possession. It helps because, even though we have our own energy, we feed off his energy.”
For the Cal men’s basketball program, this represents a huge win over a ranked opponent and a sit-up-and-take-notice start to the Martin era, particularly since the Montgomery-led Bears went 0-3 over the last five years against Boeheim's Orange, but there’s an even bigger game looming: The 2K Classic title game against No. 10 Texas on Friday night at 4:30 pm Pacific. Cal fans will finally get to see just how good this team truly is.
“I didn’t watch to take notes, just got a feel for a minute," Martin said of the early game between the Longhorns and a ranked Iowa team. "Tremendous size, quick guards, made shots. (Jonathan) Holmes did a great job in the second half, I think he scored 16 after I left, I’m not sure what he finished with after I left. Just watched them, sizing them up so to speak. Not necessarily breaking them down, we’ll get to that tonight.”