BERKELEY -- It may have been pouring many things on Wednesday in Berkeley – water from the sky, protesters into Wheeler Hall, cars onto the 880 – but it wasn’t exactly raining points in the first half for either California or Wyoming. To say the two teams shot themselves in the foot would be to overestimate their aim, as the Bears and Cowboys went a combined 13-for-47 before the break, with Wyoming holding a 16-15 lead.
Behind a career night from redshirt junior Christian Behrens, Cal came back for a 45-42 win in front of 6,648, which included distinguished guests Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin, and Bears great Sean Marks, but the game itself was far from distinguished. Extinguished was more like it.
This was the lowest point total in a win for the Bears (8-1) since a 43-41 victory over Washington State during the 2005-2006 season. The 45 points scored by Cal was the lowest since Nov. 26, 2010. Behrens -- who went 5-for-10 from the field for a career-high 12 points, and pulled down eight rebounds -- and Tyrone Wallace (17 points) were the only two Bears in double figures.
“It probably wasn’t one of our best outings offensively, but it’s one of those games you have to win if you want to be successful, not only as a team, but as a program,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin, who has his team out to its best start since the 2001-02 season. Asked if the two teams’ combined 34-for-98 shooting line was bad offense or good defense, though, Martin hedged.
“I didn’t think it was bad offense. I thought both teams were good, defensive teams and they’re normally that way. We continue to make progress, defensively.”
The plan, Martin said, was for Cal to push the tempo and not let the Cowboys impose their deliberate, slow-down style. That may have been the plan, but the up-tempo Bears didn’t have a single fast-break point until there were 15.5 seconds left in the game.
“What they do, they get offensive rebounds, and in most cases, they’re offensive rebounds, and in the late game, they try to tip a couple, but they really don’t offensive rebound," Martin said. "The shot goes up, they’re sending five guys back, unless their big guys have an obvious opportunity to rebound.”
Down by two, the Cowboys (8-2) were caught napping on the left wing, when Sam Singer poked the ball away from Josh Adams and pushed it up to Wallace, who finished with a dunk. Mere seconds later, it was Wallace who came up with the steal on Riley Rabau, pushing it up to Jordan Mathews, who, after shaking and baking his way from the top of the key down to the low post, dished to Singer for the lay-in, securing the win.
“I think they were just sped up, trying to score, so we were able to force some turnovers,” said Wallace, who finished with a game-high 17 points on 7-for-14 shooting, going 2-for-3 from beyond the three-point arc in the second half and hitting 5-of-9 shots from the floor after the break. “They were playing faster than they were throughout the whole game, so that’s what caused them to make some turnovers.”
Before that, though, Wyoming reined in Cal’s up-tempo offense to less than a trot.
Over the last two games, the Bears have shot just over 38% from the field, and on Wednesday, they hit just 6-of-23 shots before the half.
The Cowboys slowed things down by getting back quickly on defense and not allowing the Bears the spacing that Martin’s offense needs to function at a high level. On offense? They made Cal jumpy.
“They did a good job of running their offense, executing, slowing the ball down, took up the whole shot clock,” Wallace said. “At the end of the day, we’ve got to be patient. When there’s nothing in transition, we’ve got to be able to execute in the half-court. Still didn’t really score the ball well, but we got the win. We scored enough.”
That patience caused several guards – Singer, twice, notably – to gamble and lose on perimeter shots.
“For us, because they have three proven guys that can make shots, we have our guards chase, and continue to chase,” Martin said. “They got eight points on our breakdowns, poor job gambling breakdowns. Eight points – two three’s in the first half, and a two-pointer in the second half. That was our game plan. What they want to do is, if you go into those handoffs, they’ll step back and shoot three’s, so you chase ‘em, force ‘em into your big guys, and they’d make a couple in the lane, but outside of [Adams], the other guys on the team are not traditionally known for really making plays off the dribble.
“Offensively, they grind you out. They cut hard, they move hard, their bigs do a great job of using their bodies with dribble-handoffs. It was a great game for our guys, a great lesson to learn from.”
Those dribble-handoffs were a source of constant frustration for Cal’s guards, and were key in getting offense out of Wyoming forward Larry Nance, Jr., who finished 5-for-15 with a team-high 13 points and a game-high 11 rebounds, with seven of those coming on the defensive end.
“We didn’t want those guys to grind us out on both ends of the floor,” Martin said. “You have opportunities to take shots, take shots, but keep your spacing, and we didn’t do a good job of offensive rebounding until late.
“To those guys’ credit, they actually play a man, but it looks like a zone. They do a great job packing it in, and it forces you to make tough shots from three, not allowing you to get post feeds,” said Martin, who saw no fewer than four lob feeds into the low post either go out of bounds or turn into turnovers. “What you have to do against a team like that, you have to be able to make three-point shots. If you can make three-point shots, it opens it up on the interior. If you’re not consistently making three-point shots, then all of the sudden, that lane closes up on you.”
Cal shot 2-for-7 from three in the first half, and finished 4-for-12, and while not a stellar night from beyond the arc, the middle was open plenty for David Kravish. The senior center, though, struggled for the second straight game, going 2-for-11 shooting, making him 7-for-23 over his past two games.
“He spends time working on his game, so that’s fine; if he didn’t work on his game, that’s something different,” Martin said. “As long as he’s in the gym working, I’m fine with it, because they were good looks. They weren’t bad shots. I thought all his shots – maybe a couple of them were a little too quick – but other than that, I thought all his shots were good looks.”
Instead of Kravish, the main attraction down low for the Bears was Behrens, who tied Wallace with a game-high eight rebounds and was nails on the inside, challenging for boards and playing with an energy the rest of the team lacked.
“Every game, it feels like I have more confidence to do more stuff out there,” said Behrens, who has twice torn his ACL. “I’m healthy. Nothing’s holding me back in my mind.”
“CB (Behrens) did a really good job of scoring when he had the chance,” Wallace said. “When opportunities are there for us to score, we’ve got to be able to make shots.”
Bird Still Out
Sophomore wing Jabari Bird missed his third game in a row since injuring his foot against Fresno State, and was on the sidelines in a protective boot.
“I think you miss him from that standpoint [of another piece to balance the offense], but you’ve also won three games,” Martin said. “With any team, to be at your peak, you need all of your parts, especially a guy that you’re counting on. It’s not a case of Kameron Rooks, who sat out all season long, to say you’re missing him, he hasn’t played. But, Jabari’s been out there. What happens is, it’s part of your practice, part of your game plan. You run plays for him. Now, you don’t have that there, so it’s an option that you don’t have. But, I think we’re still doing a great job defensively.”