BERKELEY -- California point guard Tyrone Wallace has begun to show up on draft boards and Player of the Year watch lists across the nation due to his play thus far in the season, and Friday’s game against Eastern Washington was more of the same. Wallace contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds -- one rebound shy of a double-double in the first half, alone -- as the Bears defeated the Eagles 78-67 despite trailing for the first 14 minutes and 41 seconds of the game.
“It is a good win for our guys," said head coach Cuonzo Martin." I am happy for our guys to be 10-1 at this point. It’s one of the best starts in 55 years. I always tell the guys, “You never know when you are going to get the next win. You have to appreciate them, value them and understand how you got them and try to get another one.” It’s not easy but they brought their heart out to practice and the game. They battle, they compete and they get better as a team. They value each other on both sides of the floor, allowing the team to be successful. Just a great win for our guys. I’ve always been one of those guys who is consumed, or should I say worried about when they come off finals week into a game especially against an opponent like that, it’s important to get the win.”
The Bears (10-1) knew they were in for a close game against a strong Eagles squad that pushed Pac-12 rival Washington to the brink, and a flat start filled with seven early turnovers had Cal down seven after a little over eight minutes played. The Bears were led by Wallace, but fellow guard Sam Singer and forward Christian Behrens each contributed career highs in points, adding 15 and 20, respectively.
“If we look at Sam’s case, the thing we talked to him about is that he has to be aggressive to score – aggressive in attacking the rim," Martin said. "When you have two guys on you, that’s when you pass the ball. Other than that, drive the ball and force them to make a play because they don’t have shot blockers, so you have to take charge and take it to the rim. When you do that, you open it up for our other guys as well. Jordan Mathews did a good job of attacking the rim in the second half and putting pressure on their bigs. Because they play so many minutes they don’t really take charge or block shots. I thought we did a very good job really attacking those opportunities.”
Behrens – who eclipsed his previous career high of 12 points (recorded in each of the last two games) – also recorded eight rebounds – his third straight game with at least that many rebounds – as well as two assists and a block.
“Obviously, the biggest change and adjustment is my role on the team, I feel like,” said Behrens, who came into this season with precious little playing experience, after suffering through two ACL surgeries. “I’m playing, my teammates trust me, my coaches trust me. I’m not saying the coaches last year didn’t, but at the same time, it helps my role, and that’s big.”
After the game, Behrens said he "felt great," after netting his career-best 20 points.
"I just felt like my teammates found me in the right position and were giving me great plays," Behrens said. "Everybody did a great job today being unselfish and making that extra play. Fortunately, I was a recipient of a couple of those passes. It ended up well for me. My teammates are out there helping me out. We’re really coming together as a team and everybody is benefiting from that. I would say that I am a lot more comfortable on the court as well.
"I’ve just been going 100 percent in practices like it’s a game. I’m trying to approach everything with the same intensity and prepare ourselves the best we can. That’s honestly most of it. We have to go out there and practice like it’s a game every time or else we’re not going to get the same results. I know that intensity of practices this year is really high and everybody on the team is competing with each other. It’s great to go out there and play against these teams and then succeed after all the hard work we’ve been through going against each other for so long."
Center David Kravish had an unusually quiet night in a game that was played at a much slower pace then anticipated, adding just three points on 1-of-2 shooting and five rebounds, but continued to contribute significantly on the defensive end, with four defensive rebounds and a block.
Guard Jordan Mathews contributed 13 points to the Bears efforts despite early foul trouble keeping him out of the game for long stretches.
Cal started off sluggishly, with Eastern Washington jumping out to an early 19-12 lead. The story of the game was told in runs, as the Bears responded with a 25-7 run to close out the half. Cal’s largest lead of the half -- 12 points -- came just 33 seconds before the break, as the Bears went into the locker room with the score 37-26.
Cal continued to play without the injured Jabari Bird, who was still wearing a boot, and started the second stanza with the same lineup that started the game -- Singer, Behrens, Mathews, Kravish and Wallace – and the same lineup that has been the status quo since Bird went down. Except for Kravish, all starters ended the game in double-figures with only six points coming from the bench.
“In the first half, I don’t think he did a very good job of being ready to catch the ball," Martin said of Behrens. "I thought he settled down and he continued to get better and get rebounds, make plays and score around the rim with dunks. He just brought a lot of energy. He’s going out trying to be the team’s best big guy and he is accepting the challenge and taking pride in it. I’m just happy for him and his progress as a basketball player.”
Off the bench, freshman guard Brandon Chuaca returned from an ankle injury to record three points in just 12 minutes of play. Dwight Tarwater, Roger Moute A Bidias and Kingsley Okoroh all contributed defensive minutes off the bench.
Playing against a small team from a non-power conference, Cal was able to dominate the glass, winning the rebounding battle 36-23, but lost the turnover battle, 11-7, which contributed to the Eagles’ early lead. The Bears also improved on their free throw shooting, which had been an issue for the team, going 20-for-27 from the charity stripe, while Eastern Washington went 13-21.
For almost the entire game, the Eagles only had two players who contributed to their scoring total. The first of which was guard Tyler Harvey who nailed fadeaway threes and jumpers that would have made Stephen Curry proud, on his way to 31 points on 11-of-17 shooting. Harvey could not be stopped no matter which defender Cal used, with Singer, Moute a Bidias, Wallace and others rotating on the hot shooting guard.
"It’s a tough matchup," Singer said. "We knew going into it that he could really fill it up. Coach gave me that assignment and I did my best contesting his shots knowing that he would be pulling up from pretty deep. We forced him to go right as much as we could. In the first half, I thought I did a good job. He didn’t get too many catches in comfortable areas, but in the second half he got a little bit loose and started to bring the balls up the court going off screens. It was definitely difficult, but we did what we could."
The other scorer for Eastern Washington was 6-foot-8 center Venky Jois who added 23 points by using his quickness to get to the rim at will. He continually used a variation of a right hand drive with a spin move to score most of his points, with Cal seemingly unable to figure out how to stop it.
After halftime, Eastern Washington answered the end-of-half Cal run and went on a 14-3 run of its own, closing the gap to just two points with 14:24 remaining. The game was close for about six more minutes with the Bears unable to pull away, but another dry spell for the Eagles and some good shooting for the Cal pushed the Bears to a 27-18 run to finish out the game, with a strong dose of Behrens, Wallace, and Singer. With 4:40 left in the game, Singer was able to swipe the ball away at the right wing, and then take it coast-to-coast for a lay-in, despite trailing Felix Von Hofe trying to sneak a grab from behind as Singer went up in the lane.
The Cal men’s basketball program is off to their best start in 55 years at 10-1, but for many, they will have to improve and prove themselves as one of the nation’s elite programs on Monday night, when they face No. 5 Wisconsin at Haas Pavilion at 6 p.m.
"We haven’t been too worried about them," Singer said. "We were focused on this game and that’s it. We cannot worry about Wisconsin when we’ve got another team and game in front of us. Now it’s all Wisconsin in the next few days. I haven’t been afraid that we were going to look ahead. We didn’t really talk about it that much. I think we’ve done a good job focusing on the teams in front of us and now we get to focus on Wisconsin."