RENO, Nev. -- California squeaked out another win, this time on the road, as the Bears bested Nevada 63-56, despite their worst shooting night of the season, hitting 24-of-61 shots (39.3%) on the night, and starting off much worse, shooting 7-for-28 in the first half. But, there were some encouraging signs, and not just Tyrone Wallace's career-high 29 points.
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“I thought we got off to a slow start,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “They made plays. But, it’s hard to win on the road, and we found a way to win the game. I thought our guys showed a great level of toughness, especially in the second half, to be able to defend, to rebound and play hard, play together.”
Let’s break down just what happened, as the Bears moved to 7-1 on the season for their best start since the 2007-08 season.
1. Shooting from the hip.
Cal came into Sunday’s game shooting 47.7% from the field, so what caused the Bears to falter so heavily? First, shot selection. Early in the game, Sam Singer -- starting his second straight game – had an open three-point look, but instead pulled the ball down and decided to drive and dish, resulting in a fruitless possession.
In the first half, as Cal got down 16-8, the Bears had nine one-shot possessions. Of those one-shot possessions, Cal converted just one bucket. Over the next three one-shot possessions, the Bears moved the ball around much better, probing the defense and working both inside and outside. Cal made three of three attempts on those next three one-shot possessions, and took a 17-16 lead, thanks to a 9-0 run.
Then, former Golden Bear Kaileb Rodriguez hit a baseline jumper to retake the advantage for Nevada, 18-17.
The Wolf Pack took a 30-24 lead into the half, as Cal struggled not only to find shots, but to make them. Crucially, the Bears went 0-for-3 from three-point range, and it’s no mystery why.
2. Two men down on the outside.
The absence of Brandon Chauca (sprained ankle, day-to-day) and Jabari Bird (foot, day-to-day) on the perimeter left Jordan Mathews and Wallace as the only viable three-point threats.
“It’s definitely tough,” said Wallace, who finished with eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. “You’ve got the opposing team trying to crowd the paint. We need guys like Sam and other guys to step up and make open shots so the defense will come out and guard us.”
With one more perimeter threat on the floor – either Chauca or Bird – the Wolf Pack would not have been able to sag down into the paint and bottle up David Kravish, who got most of his shots from the mid-post and hit just 5-of-12 from the field on the evening. Kravish had just one lay-up in the first half, and went 1-for-4 in the paint.
“That’s what happens,” Martin said. “Tyrone has got to make shots. Tyrone and Sam are guys that make shots, but they’re not three-point shooters. You have guys like Brandon and Jabari – who guys who shoot three-point shots at a high level – you don’t have those guys out there now teams can defend you a little bit differently. We tell the guys: Next guy has to be ready. The next man has to be ready and be accountable.”
Christian Behrens picked up two early fouls, making post defense that much more difficult. As bad as Cal was from beyond the arc, Nevada took just a single shot from distance before the half, and failed to make it. Instead, the Wolf Pack tallied 16 points in the paint against the Bears before the break, and eight second-chance points.
Cal had just five second-chance points, and, despite Martin’s offense relying on the fast break and tempo, Cal had just two points off the fast break in the entire first half.
That’s the third reason at the root of Cal’s shooting woes.
“[It was] poor spacing, poor transition offense, the transition had more to do with me than the guys, because we hadn’t gotten up and down in about two weeks in practice, so we need to do that tomorrow,” Martin said. “The spacing, solid screens – I thought they set up a physical tone on us early in the game, and we took a step back. I thought in the second half, we accepted the challenge and we played the way we’re capable of doing.”
Part of the lack of tempo and transition game over the past two games, it seems, has been a little rust, and it’s easy to see how, when that part of the offense gets a bit creaky, things start to stagnate, as the Bears really got out and ran maybe four times in the first half.
“When you score in transition, it’s always tough,” Martin said. “Teams work on transition defense, for us to get out and score in transition, it helps us. For our guys, the confidence of getting easy baskets, your head goes up, so to speak. Putting pressure on the defense, playing the way we’re capable of playing, I thought we did that in the second half.”
Cal finished off the game with two straight baskets in transition, as Dwight Tarwater pulled down a rebound off of a missed free throw by Marqueze Coleman and pushed the ball up to Kravish in the paint, who finished with a left-handed hook from the mid-post.
After a missed layuip by Coleman, Singer was able to corral the long rebound and get out on the break with Wallace, dishing to the junior for a one-handed dunk with five seconds left. Just 4:29 earlier, Nevada held a one-point lead on a jumper in the paint from A.J. West.
“We were able to secure the rebounds on the defensive end, and that led to transition,” said Wallace. “Early in the game, they were getting offensive rebounds and banging us in the post and scoring, so we couldn’t really get in transition.”
3. The cure-all? Spacing … And Tyrone Wallace
In the second half, Cal shot 17-for-33 (51.5%), went 3-for-9 from three and scored 24 points in the paint to Nevada’s eight. The Bears also out-scored the Wolf Pack 6-0 on the fast break.
“We improved our spacing in the second half, to get into a better flow, offensively,” Martin said. “I thought Tyrone made big plays, on both ends of the floor.”
As Wallace goes, so goes Cal. Wallace scored 15 of the Bears’ first 20 points in the second half, starting with the Bears’ first three-pointer of the game 1:46 into the second stanza. After that three-ball, Wallace got into a rhythm, tipping in a missed Mathews three-pointer, then coming up with a block coming out of a time out. With 14:44 left, Wallace sent the ball around the horn, as Kravish, Singer and Behrens each got opportunities to find looks, and when those didn’t pan out, Behrens kicked the ball back out to Wallace, who looked at a three, then spun through the lane to hit a runner and give Cal a 33-32 lead. That single series was indicative of the entire second half for the Bears: Patience, shot selection and rhythm.
“As a basketball player, you make plays, and you win the game – regardless of how you win – and the next game might be different; somebody else might step up, but the bottom line is, find a way to get a win,” said Martin. “He’s always rebounding the ball. He’s always active. He made plays. He made big threes. He got to the free-throw line. He shot it better tonight from the free-throw line and put pressure on the defense the whole night. You’ve got a guy who’s able to put pressure on the defense, now your shooters are able to get shots. We had some good threes that didn’t fall – I think Dwight and Jordan had some good looks, just didn’t fall tonight – but pressure by Tyrone and Sam, getting in the lane, making plays, gave those guys tremendous opportunities.”
Once Singer and Wallace were able to space out and get into the lane, Singer seemed to settle in, as well. Instead of passing on the look early when nothing was falling for the Bears, he hit a big three off the catch down the stretch.
With just under six minutes left and Cal down, 50-46, Wallace threw the ball to the mid-post for Behrens, who kicked it back up top to Mathews. Mathews found a driving Wallace, who then kicked back to Singer in the corner for a three off the catch, closing the lead to one.
“It just felt natural,” Singer said. “Ty drove, my guy helped, he kicked it to me, and I just let it go. I have confidence in my shot; I just have to keep shooting it.”
Martin would tend to agree.
“He works on it all the time,” Martin said of Singer’s three-point shot, which he wants to see more of. “I don’t know why he doesn’t shoot it more. He works on it. He took a big three against Montana at home, and he missed it, but it was a big three. He spends a lot of time working on his game. Why work on [the shot] if you’re not going to use it?”
Singer played a career-high 37 minutes, with five points on 2-of-5 shooting with three assists and four rebounds.
“Always give him leeway – not to make mistakes, but to play,” Martin said. “There’s a difference. Go out there and play, play the way we play, play the way you practice. That’s the bottom line.”
4. Doing the little things.
Behind Wallace’s game- and career-high 29 points, behind the abysmal shooting percentage, behind the final score, were a measly three turnovers for the Bears. After Wednesday’s 22-turnover debacle against Montana, Cal took care of the ball. Now, maybe they took a bit too much care of it, as the Bears only tallied 10 assists on 24 field goals, but it’s certainly progress.
“In the first half, we didn’t really move the ball well, but in the second half, we were able to get more ball movement,” said Wallace.
Also below the fold: Cal hit 12-of-18 shots from the charity stripe, while Nevada went 19-for-27. There are two things every successful basketball team does, and they’re fairly simple: Hit free throws and take care of the ball. Control what you can control. Shooting was obviously not Cal’s strength on Sunday, but playing with energy defense (the Wolf Pack shot 18-for-54 from the field and 1-for-8 from three), hitting free throws and taking care of the ball are basic fundamentals, and the Bears excelled at all three.