BERKELEY – California looked very much out-of-sorts against East Carolina in the opening game of the Las Vegas Invitational, unable to find room to operate against a packed Pirates zone, struggling with foul trouble, going 19-of-31 at the free throw line and turning the ball over 15 times. Despite all that, though, the Bears were able to pull out a 70-62 win on the night before Big Game.
“I watched them on film, and I know they play zone and mix it up," said head coach Cuonzo Martin. "They’re physical guys, play a tough brand. No. 2, he’s a good shooter. White, he can shoot the ball. I think we’re the better team, but I didn’t think it would be easy. They spread you out and make plays, and if you’re not ready to guard off the dribble, it can be a long night."
In a game of extra possessions, the Bears got two in the final 1:20, thanks to a wild offensive rebound by senior point guard Tyrone Wallace, and a leaping save out of bounds on another offensive board by Jabari Bird, which wound up in the hands of Wallace, who drove the lane, drew the foul and hit both of his free throws.
“He did a good job of cutting, when the defense wasn’t aware,” Wallace said of Bird. “He got some offensive rebounds down there, a couple put-backs. Those were big for us, those extra possessions. Those are winning plays, and those are things that we need.”
Bird finished the game with 10 points and six rebounds.
That 40-second flurry was diametrically opposed to how the Bears played the rest of the night, as Wallace – who’d hit 12-of-14 free throws coming in -- missed his first three from the charity stripe.
Leading into that series, freshman Ivan Rabb – who finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds – split a box-and-one zone to find a slashing Bird for a lay-in, but Rabb struggled again with foul trouble, finishing with four, and sitting during a key stretch where Michael Zangari -- East Carolina's 6-foot-9 senior, who had just one basket this year on 4 shots, and two career three-pointers in three previous seasons -- was able to penetrate and hit two shots in the low post, while also stretching the defense and hitting two three pointers.
Breaking the zone was a bugaboo for the Bears all night, for several reasons. The prescribed strategy against a 1-3-1 zone like East Carolina played for much of the game is to shoot the opponent out of it. That wasn’t an option for Cal, which was tentative all night from the top of the zone, and shot a season-low 3-of-23 from beyond the three-point arc.
“I’d always like to be on the winning side learning lessons, than the losing side learning lessons," Martin said of playing against the zone. "It’s good to see this early. I’d rather have it now, so our guys are prepared, and know how to move."
Freshman Jaylen Brown also struggled at the line, going 8-of-14, and hitting just 4-of-12 shots from the field, going 0-for-5 from three-point range. Brown did finish with 16 points and 10 rebounds, though, including two on the offensive glass
“If I was a betting man, to defend us in the man, it’ll be tough, and several NBA teams, who come in and scout the players, have said we’ll see a lot of zone this year, and that’s fine," Martin said. "We’ve got guys who will hit shots.”
The Bears missed all 12 three-pointers they took in the second half.
“It was a zone,” Wallace said. “Typically in a zone, you shoot three’s. The thing about the zone is, they don’t want you to get to the paint, so you have to find your shots on the perimeter. You still have to find your ways into the gaps and seams. It was just one of those nights – the ball isn’t going to go down every time.”
“We did a good job at finding other ways to score the basketball, and that’s what we need to do when shots aren’t falling,” Rabb said.
“We’ve got to feed Ivan down there,” Wallace added.
As for driving to break the zone, Wallace didn’t make his first drive in the lane until there was 1:30 left in the first half. Cal stayed on the perimeter, and could not find any room against the tightly-packed zone, and led by just five at the break.
“I think we just didn’t move the ball well. We got stagnant,” Wallace said. “There were times where the ball was swinging, and we were holding it, instead of getting steady ball movement. We didn’t do a good job of getting the ball to the high post and low corner area. We’ve got to do a better job.”
The Bears didn’t help themselves much, committing 15 turnovers and allowing 11 offensive rebounds. But, in the second half, Cal turned the ball over just five times, and allowed four offensive boards, while piling up 12 of their own, with three of note coming from Rabb, who had three put-back buckets that helped lead the Bears into a 10-0 run starting nine minutes into the second stanza. That run was capped by a Wallace steal, into a give-and-go with Jordan Mathews to give the Bears a 53-42 lead.
“There was a stretch where he had eight points straight, and three offensive rebounds – he does a great job of attacking the glass,” Wallace said of Rabb.
East Carolina, though, managed to cut the lead to three with 2:14 to go, necessitating a 6-1 run to finish things off, thanks to four straight free throws made by Wallace, who scored 10 of Cal’s final 19 points, and finished with a game-high 20 points on 7-of-15 shooting.