BERKELEY – It didn’t take long for California freshman Brandon Chauca to make a huge impact on the Bears’ season. In his first game, with 17 seconds remaining in regulation, Chauca evaded two defenders and passed up an open three to find Jordan Mathews in the near corner. Mathews nailed a three-pointer to take against Montana – and former assistant Travis DeCuire -- into overtime.
About 10 minutes and 53 seconds of sloppy basketball later, Chauca made what can only be described as the epitome of a freshman faux pas, when he fouled Jordan Gregory, down by two, giving him two free throws. Luckily for the Bears, Gregory missed both and Montana missed the ensuing three-pointer, to allow Cal to leave Haas Pavilion with a 78-76 win over the Grizzlies despite an astounding 22 turnovers.
“I thought Brandon gave us big minutes, and I thought he was the X-factor so to speak,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin of his freshman point guard, who tallied six assists with three turnovers, and added eight points, going 2-of-4 from three-point range. “He was the unknown, and one of his biggest strengths is his ability to shoot the ball, so he helped us with those first two threes he made.”
[RECRUITING: 2016 Prospect On-Hand for Cal Win]
“[Brandon] gave us some big buckets off the bench,” said Mathews. “First game, tough game like it was, for us as freshman, we played Compton and the Seniors led us, and we got to fill in their and get our feet wet. Brandon was thrown right into the fire, so for him to do what he did tonight, really helped us a lot.
The Bears (6-1) were favored to win by 14 points in an early season match-up against the 2-3 Grizzlies, but a flat start filled with poor ball handling – a season-high 22 turnovers that led to 23 points for the visiting Grizzlies -- had Cal in a tight game for 50 minutes. The Bears were led by guard Tyrone Wallace, who tallied his third double-double of the season with 22 points and a career-high 15 rebounds.
“We knew that if we executed on our offense and did the right things defensively, in terms of our assignments, that they’d have a hard time scoring,” said DeCuire, who helped to recruit Wallace. “They did, for stretches, but obviously guys like Tyrone Wallace step up and take over a ballgame with a double-double, and Jordan Mathews and David Kravish made big shots.”
Things weren’t entirely rosy for the junior out of Bakersfield, Calif., as he committed five turnovers – one of six Bears to have multiple about-faces on the game.
“We average 10 turnovers a game, and we had 22 in this game,” said Martin. “Part of it is they did a good job with pressuring, but another part of it is we were careless with the ball and weren’t strong with the ball,” said Martin. “I thought they did a great job of being physical without fouling. For the most part, I feel like maybe 10 of those turnovers were bad turnovers on our part. I just thought we stepped up at the right time, and found a way to get a win. ”
Against a former Cal coach, thats a statement right there!— Oscar Proud #?2?4? (@Oscar_Frayer) December 4, 2014
Of the Bears’ 22 turnovers, nine occurred in the first half, with five in the first 8:26, during which Montana kept pace with Cal, keeping the game tied 19-19.
“I thought it was a hard fought game by both teams,” said Martin. “I thought Travis had his team ready to go, they competed, and played hard and physical. They moved the ball on offense and got off to a fast start, so give those guys credit for being ready to go. I thought our guys did a great job of handling adversity, keeping their composure and finding a way to win.”
The Bears started off slow, with Montana jumping out to an early 7-2 lead. The game was close throughout the first half with eight lead changes in the first 20 minutes. The Bears’ largest lead of the game in the first half, six points, coming at halftime at 35-29, after a 12-7 run to close the half.
With Jabari Bird out due to a foot injury, Martin started Sam Singer at the point, alongside Wallace, and at times had both of them on the floor, along with Chauca.
Except for Singer and Christian Behrens, all starters ended the game in double-figures with Mathews contributing 13 points, going 3-for-5 from three.
“You don’t like it,” smiled DeCuire, when asked what it’s like to see Mathews hit clutch three-pointers from the other bench. “We talked about not letting him get shots, and with fatigue, you forget, and he had gone so long without making shots, that I think guys forgot. That freed him up.”
Behrens added five points and four rebounds, while Singer contributed seven points and five rebounds in 28 minutes of action. Besides Chauca, who played an astonishing 41 minutes, Dwight Tarwater and Kingsley Okoroh both contributed significant defensive minutes off the bench, with Tarwater going 2-of-3 from the field and pulling down six rebounds in 13 minutes and Okoroh going 1-of-4 from the field and pulling down four boards, with one block. Okoroh was the only Bear who didn’t turn the ball over a single time.
With huge height and depth advantages, Cal won the rebounding battle, 45-33, but lost the turnover battle badly, 22-9, which allowed Montana to stay in the game and should have been enough for an upset, if not for Montana shooting 11-of-23 from the line.
“We’ve been struggling with perimeter rebounding lately,” said DeCuire. “For Jermaine [Edmonds] to come out and get 12 rebounds for us tonight was huge. We got him shooting the ball well.”
Kravish added 14 points and seven rebounds, but was outplayed for much of the game by the Grizzlies Martin Breunig, a transfer from Washington, who seemed to be one of only two players that were capable of scoring against the Bears. He contributed 23 points and five rebounds, while guard Jordan Gregory added 23 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists.
“It’s a case of Dave demanding it, me not yelling so much for him to post up strong,” Martin said of his senior center’s struggles. “You have to want the ball. I think that’s the biggest thing. It’s simple. You want the ball, you’ll get the ball. They want to throw him the ball, but he has to have a post presence. He has to want the ball and demand the ball.”
After halftime, Montana went on an 11-3 run tying the game at 40 with 15 minutes to go. More missed shots and turnovers plagued the Bears as they went down by eight just three and a half minutes later. Luckily for Cal, the Grizzlies were never able to pull away, and a run over the last few minutes along with the aforementioned Mathews three pointer sent the game into extra time.
Five minutes, however, were not enough as neither team was able to separate themselves. Gregory was fouled by Wallace while shooting a three-pointer, with the Bears up two, giving him the chance to clinch the game with 51 seconds remaining, but the Grizzlies guard made two out of three from the charity stripe to send the game into double overtime.
In the second overtime, Cal opened up a four-point gap and seemed destined to take home a game it didn’t deserve. A layup by Kravish with 28 seconds to go gave the Bears a two-point lead with one possession left for Montana. A Grizzlies turnover sent Wallace to the line, where he missed both free throws, and then Chauca fouled Gregory yet again. The Grizzlies guard missed both free throws, yet again, and the subsequent three-pointer was missed to avoid dealing Martin a tough loss early in the season.
“We’re young and inexperienced, and for us, we need to figure out how to close games, with free throws and getting good shots down the stretch,” DeCuire said. “I thought we had a chance to go up 10, 12, 14, and didn’t do that, and then they hit big shots and tied it up down the stretch at the free-throw line.”
For the Cal men’s basketball program that recently earned a signature program win against basketball powerhouse Syracuse, the Bears narrowly avoided an early season signature loss to begin the Cuonzo Martin era.
For DeCuire, it was an emotional game, given that he was an assistant in Berkeley for six years under former head coach Mike Montgomery.
“The lead-up, you’re a little emotional about trying to go against guys that you recruited, and spent some quality time with, guys that you’ve been in their home,” DeCuire said. “It’s hard to not want those guys to do well, and you want them to not do well against you, so it was very difficult coming in, preparing. I’d have rather not played these guys, but at the end of the day, it’s a game, when the ball goes up in the air, you want to win.
“You spend so much time in a place, it’s a home away from home, and my family came with, and they enjoyed their time here. I’ve got friends I grew up with here. Obviously, there were a lot of familiar faces in the stands that I had a good time with. Definitely, a homecoming, in its own special way.”
DeCuire – who was a finalist for the job that Martin eventually won – was positive in his assessment of where Martin has the Bears at this point in the season.
“He’s done a good job with those guys, and I think, with a young group, he has discipline and structure,” DeCuire said. “He’s been very positive with them, and they seem to be responding to him in a very positive way. Any conversation I’ve ever had with him has always been positive, so I think they’re enjoying themselves.”
The Bears will travel east to face Nevada in a 1 p.m. tip on Sunday, and it’s still uncertain if they will have Bird available, Martin said.
“The thing about Jabari, if he were out two weeks, and we had practiced without him, we could go over a few things,” Martin said. “When you don’t have a guy with the reputation and the presence, now, all of the sudden, you can collapse with your defense a little bit more, because you lost a presence on the perimeter – a guy that can make shots and make plays. Now, the defense can shift a little bit more. You can sag in on the big guys a little bit more. That’s the one thing. Sometimes, you can have a bad game, but you have a reputation that people will respect out of the game … To lose Jabari in a game like that, it’s not easy. You count on that production every day. We’ve got to make the adjustments.”
Martin said that Bird is day-to-day.
“He’s in the boot, because we don’t want to have any pressure on it,” Martin said. “We’re off tomorrow. He had an X-ray and an MRI, so it’s just his foot, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Martin was coy when asked the exact nature of Bird’s injury. When asked what the tests showed, he said, “His foot. It’s just his foot … So far, no breaks or anything like that. If he can go [Sunday], he’ll go. One thing I’ve always done as a coach is to leave it up to the doc’s and the trainers. I stay completely out of it. They tell me what’s going on, and I’ll follow their lead.”
The Wolf Pack (2-5) fell 68-57 on Monday against Long Beach State, and are averaging 58.7 points per game this season. Opponents are averaging just over seven turnovers per game against Nevada, which is shooting just 37.1% from the field.
Publisher Ryan Gorcey contributed to this report.