Has Cuonzo Martin’s team turned things around? Not yet, but they’re in the left-hand turn lane.
“This is exciting for our guys,” Martin said. “You have to remember: We won a lot of games like this in the preseason, down the stretch – not necessarily at the buzzer like that, but there were a couple. For me, it’s just winning a ballgame. I see our guys growing. I said, even when we lost six straight, that guys were making progress, but it’s hard to see that when you’re losing games. You see it in spurts. We defended well, we competed, we played hard. We did a great job with our post-double defense. We spent a lot of time on that.”
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This certainly is a different team than the one that lost by 19 points to UCLA back in January.
“They’re competing,” Martin said. “Even at 10-1, I thought we won games, and showed a level of toughness, but it wasn’t the toughness that you need to compete at this level, in this league. I think we were just better than the guys we were playing against. We were playing with energy, and we were having fun, but then you lose six straight, not a lot of fight. We weren’t competing, trying to find direction.
“We lacked leadership from the standpoint of guys not going through it, to lead. Not that they didn’t try to do a good job, but you have to go through it in order to understand what it means to lead. You have to learn how to follow, in order to lead somebody. Those are the things we’re working on with our guys. In order for you to say something, you have to be sound in what you’re saying, and you have to be able to do the things you’re saying. The biggest thing is the growth and maturity, and just going through the fire. The best way to learn is to go through it.”
The final play by Dwight Tarwater -- the eventual game-winner -- showed Martin that this team is continuing to find its toughness.
“Great win. Actually, I would imagine, a great game to watch and be a part of. I guess it’s easy to say that, now,” Martin said.
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Cal next takes the court on Feb. 12 at Colorado at 6 p.m. Now, on to the analysis.
1. Defense Bears, Defense. The first half was arguably the best defensive half Cal has had all year, as the Bears held UCLA to 0.848 points per possession, allowed only four offensive rebounds, and forced turnovers on 21.2% of UCLA possessions. Yes, the Bruins shot 44.0% from the field, but they had just three assists on 11 field goals, and depended on Bryce Alford for 13 points – eight of which came on him dribbling the ball up the court from under his own goal and taking a quick shot. When UCLA couldn’t rely on Alford, they had a tough time getting good ball movement.
Cal was only credited with two steals in the first half, but they forced seven turnovers by the Bruins, scoring seven points off of those turnovers to keep a 32-28 lead going into halftime.
Isaac Hamilton -- who scored 18 against Stanford earlier this week – was a complete non-factor in 35 minutes, going 1-for-5 with five rebounds and three of UCLA’s 12 turnovers.
Another key defensive factor for the Bears was doubling posts down low, particularly Tony Parker, who took 15 of the Bruins’ 54 shots, and only pulled down seven rebounds.
“That’s something we’ve been working on,” Martin said. “We’ve worked on it quite a bit. I don’t really like to double the post like that, but our guys did a great job. We’ve been working on that probably at least a month and a half, but it was the first time we actually used it in a game at a high level, because it takes time. The last thing you want to do is give guys open shots and open looks, and I thought we did a great job of setting the tone.
“It’s timing, but also, you double the post, your weakside guys have to be ready. You can’t allow the guy to pass the ball to get the ball back. It just takes time, because I don’t want guys to get open looks, and the guy opposite the big guy gets lay-ups. We did a great job being physical and being aggressive.”
This was a very different Bears team from the one that lost by 19 to UCLA on Jan. 11.
“We’re playing much more aggressive,” Singer said of the defensive intensity. “We changed the way we play pick and rolls, and so we’re playing much more aggressive. We’re just playing much harder, and much more confidently, and more guys are contributing, so I think that’s the reason why there’s such a big difference between the two games.”
2. Kingsley Okoroh arrives. This season, the freshman from England has had a very uneven go of things on both ends of the floor. The 7-footer has been relatively consistent on the defensive end, providing a big body to clog the lane and block shots, but offensively, he’s been somewhat of a liability. On Saturday, Okoroh was not just a big body getting in the way; he was mobile, he was active, he played a role in the transition game and was a legitimate option down low, going 1-for-1 on a tip-in, and adding a block and a steal in the first half.
Okoroh finished with four points and six rebounds, with two blocks and two steals.
“I thought King grew up quite a bit,” said Martin. “I thought he competed, he battled, he played physical … King did a great job one-on-one, defending.”
That tip-in came as part of an 8-0 run by the Bears coming out of the first media time out, when he and Tarwater effectively shut down Parker in the post, allowing Okoroh unfettered access to the low post on the follow up to a Jordan Mathews miss.
“He snatched big rebounds,” Martin said. “That’s a case of lifting weights three to four days a week, being physical, because Tony Parker’s a physical presence around the rim, but for King to hold his own and have a demanding presence, he snatched big rebounds and made plays.”
With the Bears and Bruins tied at 43-43, Okoroh reached back in the lane after a Powell block on a Wallace jumper, and with those long arms of his, swatted the ball out of Powell’s hands on the rebound, then pushed the ball up to Mathews. Okoroh kept pace with the play, and drew the foul on the attempted put-back after Mathews missed, hitting one of two free throws to give Cal a 44-43 lead with 13:51 remaining in the game.
“King has the ability to alter shots, to block shots and alter shots, and rebound pretty well,” said Singer. “What people don’t really see is that he’s a really, really smart basketball player, like you saw on his steal, when he stole the ball from behind. He’s a really intelligent basketball player, so when he’s back there and he’s sure of himself, he provides a lot, because he’s 7-1, long arms, and he can block shots and alter shots. He was outstanding tonight.”
3. Jabari Bird looks like Jabari Bird. This is the Jabari Bird that Martin has been waiting to see, and, if I’m being honest, me, as well. Before the season, Martin asked me who the most athletic player on this team. Without hesitation, I said, “Jabari.” Before the game, an NBA scout asked about Bird. I said, “He’s on-and-off, but when he’s on, he’s on.” “NBA-on?” the scout asked. I answered in the affirmative. He proved that out on Saturday.
Bird went 4-for-8 from the field before the break, adding four rebounds and three assists to one turnover, and not spending a single minute on the bench. Bird finished 6-for-15 from the floor, 3-for-8 from beyond the three-point arc, pulled down six rebounds and dished out three assists.
Bird said that this is “definitely” the best he’s felt on the court.
“I think it’s just mindset,” Bird said, of what made the difference between Saturday and the previous seven games, during which he shot 33.3% from the field. “I came into the game with an aggressive mindset, and that carried through, the rest of the game, with me. My teammates did a good job of finding me for easy lay-ups and got me going a little bit. It helped my game a lot, today.”
The sophomore – and former five-star recruit – found the aggression and killer instinct he’d been missing since he returned from a stress fracture in his foot, enduring the same kind of uncertainty-fueled slump that possessed him for 10 games after returning from a sprained ankle last season. This Bird was confident, played angry, played smart and worked on both ends of the floor.
After Okoroh’s tip-in to make the game 12-6, Bird got the ball on the left wing, outside the three-point arc. He pump faked just hard enough to get onto his toes, but not hard enough to actually leave his feet. His defender, though, did leave his feet, allowing Bird to settle back down and swing a pass to the left to Mathews, who nailed a three of his own, to finish the 8-0 run.
“Jabari made big shots,” Martin said. “He scared me on that one, but he made big shots and big plays.”
With just under eight minutes left in the first half, Bird came flying in between two UCLA big men -- Thomas Welsh and Gyorgy Goloman -- to get the offensive rebound, the reverse lay-in, and the foul – which he cashed in with the and-one.
One play later, Bird gook a run-out on a Wallace outlet pass for the slam dunk.
When UCLA went on a 9-2 run late in the first half, it was Bird who hit a baseline fadeaway to put Cal up, 28-23. In the waning seconds of the first half, Wallace corralled a defensive rebound with three seconds left, let fly with a jumper, but missed. Bird came flying in with the tip at the buzzer to put the Bears up by four.
As the Bruins crept ahead, 47-44, threatening to pull away, Bird stayed in Norman Powell’s hip pocket all the way up the floor after a Kravish miss, forcing the UCLA senior out of bounds.
“I was attacking the glass, trying to get some rebounds, and that’s the main thing for me – if I go at the glass, play with some energy and try to work hard on defense, that allows my offense to be a little bit more effective,” Bird said.
With 2:49 left in the game, Bird took a feed from Tyrone Wallace after he teamed up with Sam Singer for a steal on Alford in the post and hit a three from the left wing, bringing Cal to within two points after a dunk by Parker gave UCLA its largest lead of the game.
With 1:01 left, Wallace missed a three, but Bird snatched the rebound, then got the ball back to Wallace, who delivered a perfect swing pass to his left for Bird, who hit another trey to get the Bears to within one, setting the stage for Tarwater.
“We have two options coming out of that, [depending on] if they were in a man or a zone,” Martin said of the time out he called that immediately preceded the shot, with 32 seconds left on the clock, and the Bears down 62-61. “The went man. The thing about it, what I said in the huddle, for Dwight: ‘Be ready to shoot the ball.’ We have what we call a wild card action in the zone, and Tyrone would curl off Dwight, and Dwight sprints to the corner – the same corner where he got the shot at – and if the shot was open, Tyrone would have to do it. Tyrone had the ball, and we made a play and he knocked the shot down. He put a lot of arc on that ball, because that was the only way that was going in. Just a good shot, a good play. We had the spacing we needed. It was just a matter of making a play.”
4. Sing me a song. Starting with his game-winner at Washington, Sam Singer hit five straight three-pointers, including two crucial treys in the second half to stop growing UCLA momentum.
“The shot at Washington gave me a lot of confidence, but I think it started during the Washington State game,” said Singer, who’s shooting 12-for-16 (75%) in his last three games. “I had a three go in-and-out, that felt really good, so from then on, I just told myself, ‘Don’t worry about percentages, don’t worry about misses, just keep shooting, keep playing aggressively,’ and after Washington, obviously I had a lot of confidence. I’ve fed off that, and now I’m shooting the ball pretty well, getting in the lane and playing more confidently and being more aggressive.”
He did, however, miss his first three-pointer in three games in the second half, though he didn’t dwell much on that, since, after all, he came into the Huskies game 4-for-29 on the season from beyond the arc.
“I was going to say I’m mad about that, but it’s just been a lot of work in the gym,” Singer said. “A lot of early mornings, getting shots up after practice, I knew at some point, they were going to start falling, so it’s just, keep shooting confidently, keep working hard and see the ball go through the net, and I did. Now, I’m very confident, so I’m going to keep shooting.”
But, three-point shooting wasn’t the only thing Singer was doing on Saturday. With UCLA taking a 40-36 lead with 16 minutes left in the game, Singer hit a lean-back baseline jumper off the glass in transition to bring the game to 40-38. Moments later, with David Kravish doubled underneath, pivoting for his life, the senior big found Singer on the right wing for a nothing-but-net three. Singer hit the next Cal basket off a UCLA turnover, curling up top and hitting a shot off the glass.
“Just to see Sam hit those shots, shooting with confidence – because he does it in practice – it was just a matter of that confidence carrying over into the game,” Martin said. “He did it. I was happy to see that.”
Singer would hit another three with 11:44 left on a pass from Wallace to tie the game at 47. With the Bears down 49-49, Singer got the feed from down low by Tarwater, off a miss from Bird. He dutifully made his fifth straight three-pointer since going 4-for-29 to start the season, sending Haas into a tizzy and giving the Bears a 51-49 lead.
Singer was also key in defending Alford, who went 4-for-7 in the first half, but hit just one more shot the rest of the game.
“I’ve said it before: Alford is one of the better guards – not just in this league – in all of college basketball, because he makes shots, makes free throws, he makes plays," Martin said. "You have to identify him with one and a half guys, and I thought Sam did a tremendous job on him, in the second half, really making him work and setting the tone.”
• Jordan Mathews left the game with 18:37 left due to what Martin said was a sprained ankle.
“I would imagine he’s fine,” Martin said. “He looked like he walked out of here, but we’ll see.”
• Seven of the nine Bears who hit the floor on Saturday played at least 20 minutes, the same number as on Thursday against USC.
“We still have a ways to go. We’re probably 70 percent of what I think we’ll be when it’s all said and done,” Martin said. “You’ve got to have fresh legs to play as hard as you can play, because even in this four-game stretch, this is the first time in this four-game stretch that you’ve seen multiple guys subbed out of a game, because the thing I ask those guys, if we’re going to lose, then let’s lose by competing and playing hard. I think those guys are doing it. They try to exert as much energy as possible, and ask to be taken out. I think that helps us grow. That’s the only way you grow as a team: You have to compete and play hard.”
What remains in that final 30%?
“I just think the growth, the toughness to battle, and again, going through it,” Martin said.
• With the 64-62 win, Cal won its fourth game in a row and broke a three-game losing streak to UCLA.
• For the third consecutive game, Cal won with a three-pointer in the closing seconds after Tarwater’s three from the corner with 20 seconds left. Singer’s three beat Washington, 90-88, last Sunday, and Tyrone Wallace beat USC with a buzzer-beater Thursday, 70-69.
• Wallace scored 10 points to move up to three places to 39th on Cal’s all-time scoring list, now with 1,050. He recorded his fifth double-double of the season.
• Bird finished with 16 points, his highest total since scoring 18 vs. Cal Poly on Nov. 26.
• Singer’s 13 points were just two points shy of his career high (15 vs. Eastern Washington Dec. 19). He also had 11 last Sunday at Washington.
• Cal finished the game with just five turnovers and only one in the second half. The Bears turned the ball over just twice after the first three minutes.
• Attendance for the game was 10,853, the Bears’ third crowd over 10,000 this season. Cal drew sellout-crowds of 11,877 vs. Wisconsin and Arizona.
• With 1 block, David Kravish increased his school-record total to 213.
• Cal’s bench outscored UCLA’s bench, 17-2.
• The Bears have made 18 three-pointers in their last two games (9 vs. UCLA, 9 vs. USC), their best two-game total of the year.