Then, Utah went on a 22-6 run that extended until there were 12:38 left in the second – much of it with three starters on the bench – propelling the Utes to a 76-61 victory in Salt Lake City.
“That’s a good team,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “We’ve got to box out, take care of the basketball, settle down and run the offense.”
With five Bears tallying four personal fouls apiece -- Jabari Bird, Tyrone Wallace, David Kravish, Sam Singer and Kingsley Okoroh -- and three of those players saddled with four fouls with more than eight minutes left in the game, the Cal offense was severely limited in the second half, as those five combined to shoot 11-for-23, with 10 of those field goals coming from Bird (season-high 21 points) and Wallace (game-high 26).
Utah’s bench outscored the Bears’ reserves 20-10, with Brandon Chauca -- who was Cal’s third-leading scorer -- providing seven points. Cal missed injured forward Christian Behrens -- who recently had knee surgery and will likely miss a substantial period of time – putting more on the shoulders of Okoroh, Kravish and Dwight Tarwater. While Okoroh continued to show improvement, giving Cal some quality defensive minutes down low, he took just one shot and committed two fouls after the break.
In contrast to the Bird-and-Wallace Show, Utah (20-4, 10-2 in Pac-12) had a well-rounded full team performance that was able to weather a second-half absence of Delon Wright, who had to sit after rolling his ankle with 12:38 remaining, but not before he scored six points with a rebound, a block and a steal to start the half.
Four Utes scored in double figures, led by former Cal recruit Jakob Poeltl and Wright, who tore up the Bears defense, finishing with 16 points and five assists. Fellow starters Dakarai Tucker and Brandon Taylor added 12 and 13 points respectively.
Burdened by early foul trouble, Cal (16-10, 6-7) still managed to open up an early lead, going up by six after just over 13 minutes. However, the Utes were not going to lose their first home game in over a year – a streak of 17 straight wins at the Huntsman Center – without a fight, as Poeltl scored 18 points, with 13 coming in the second half, and Wright piled up 12 second-half points, going 8-of-8 from the line as Utah took advantage of Cal’s tentative play in the lane.
“They got to the free throw line, they were able to make some plays and get to the rim, and I thought we got a little stagnant, instead of staying aggressive,” said Martin. “They went to a 2-2-1 trap, and they got it over the top and were able to score the ball. They were aggressive and made plays.”
The Bears shot 45.6% from the field for the game, but after shooting 14-for-28 (50%) in the first half, Cal (16-10, 6-7) shot 41.6% in the second stanza -- going 0-for-10 to start the half – and 1-for-6 from three-point range, while hitting just 2-of-6 from the free throw line after the break.
The lack of production from the perimeter – a combination of Tarwater’s poor shooting (0-for-5 from the floor, 0-for-4 from three) and Jordan Mathews seldom coming clear off ball screens, or having clear looks off the catch (and passing the ball on two occasions when he did) – stands in stark contrast to the previous five games. During the five-game winning streak, the Bears went 40-for-102 (39.2%), averaging 20.4 three-point attempts per game. On Sunday, Cal went 4-for-14 beyond the arc.
“He hurt his ankle two games ago,” Martin said of Mathews. “He couldn’t move at the level he needed to. It was just hard for him to get going, but he tried. He just couldn’t.”
Turnovers once again plagued the Bears, as they surrendered the 13 times – four of those by Wallace – with the Utes scoring 11 points off of those 13 turnovers, in large part thanks to an aggressive press that they employed during their 22-6 run.
“They turned the pressure up, tried to turn us over,” Martin said. “I thought we got stagnant, as opposed to getting across half-court and attacking the rim. We were settling. Those guys pressured, and we allowed them to get their defense set.”
Utah also had numerous second-chance opportunities, with the Bear’s thin frontcourt allowing 12 offensive rebounds and 15 second chance points.
Outside of Wallace and Bird, who went 21-of-29 while the rest of the team shot 5-of-28, Cal had very little going its way. Fellow guard Mathews ended his hot streak, turning in a goose egg in the scoring column and going 0-2 shooting from the field after averaging 15.6 points per game over the five-game winning streak.
Kravish got the ball down often early in the game, but after two quick fouls sent him to the bench, he finished with four points on 2-of-11 shooting and four rebounds, as Poeltl and forward Chris Reyes bottled him up down low. Reyes went just 2-of-8 from the floor, but pulled down 10 rebounds.
“I thought we had some good looks around the rim, especially in the first half,” Martin said. “They just didn’t go. That was part of it.”
The Bears started off maintaining a slim lead for the first 13 minutes. Soon after, Utah caught fire, hitting nine of its next 18 field goals, as Cal went 6-for-21 during the same stretch.
After a five game winning streak, Cal was hoping to become a bubble team but a devastating loss to the Utes seemingly quashes their hopes of an NCAA berth. The streaky nature of the Bears team, who have had streaks 10-1, 1-8 and then 5-0 this season, looks likely to come back to haunt them as they search for postseason play. Cal has a brief break in action before returning to the Bay Area to face Stanford in Palo Alto on Saturday, Feb. 21, at 3:30 PM on the Pac-12 Networks.