Coach Tony Bennett's Cougars aced the exam. The final score, 73-56, does not accurately reflect how completely Washington State had this game in hand. Cal never led, was last tied at 2-2, and was essentially out of the game at six minutes into the first half as WSU went on a 13-3 run after the tie.
|AP Photo/Dino Vournas
"A loss and we're out of the rankings," said sophomore forward Daven Harmeling. "We could not let it go to our heads - we had to get a split or better down here."
Led by Junior guard Kyle Weaver's 14 points, a career-high 10 assists, and six rebounds, the Cougars showed a balanced attack, with each of their five starters scoring in double figures.
"I thought when Cal had some breakdowns defensively," Bennett said, "we got some easy baskets. When you can have 5 guys in double figures, that's significant for us. I thought it was a matter of Cal missing shots in the first half rather than us playing 'D', but I thought we clamped down in the second half."
While stats don't always tell the story, they did on Thursday.
WSU shot 55.2% in the first half to build a 12-point lead at the intermission, while the Bears shot 40%, with 15 of their 25 attempts from outside the three-point arc. Not surprisingly, Cal was manhandled on the boards, out-rebounded 20-9 at the intermission.
It got worse.
While the Bears did hold their own on the rebounds in the second half with a slight 18-16 edge, the Cougars actually improved their shooting, hitting 13 of 21 (61.9%). Meanwhile, Cal's mediocre 40% shooting before the break declined to 29% in the second stanza. 29 of their 56 shots were from long-distance, making just seven.
"They did a great job," guard Ayinde Ubaka said. "They capitalized off our mistakes and our laziness on defense every time. That's what great teams do. They are not the old Washington State."
Cal made some runs, including a 59-second spurt in the middle of the first half that cut a 17-5 deficit to 17-13 when Eric Vierneisel and Ryan Anderson hit threes 27 seconds apart, followed by an Anderson deuce - but who then missed the free throw for the possible three point play.
After a timeout, Harmeling responded in short order with five of his 14 points, then Weaver chipped in with a layup to stretch it back to an 11 point margin.
Vierneisel and Ubaka each hit shots to close the gap again, this time to just six points at 33-27, but Derrick Low converted a four-point play as the shot clock was ran out, taking the air out of Cal's sails.
"Bad break on Low," Braun said, "a 4-point play. Just as we are making a run, they make a big play. You've got to play very well to beat Washington State, they are one of the top teams we have played this year."
The Bears had one more good run in them.
After falling down by 17 with 11 minutes left, Cal rode a three-point basket by Alex Pribble, a pair of free throws, another three-ball from Ryan Anderson (the game's high scorer) and a bucket from Ubaka to a 56-46 deficit with 7:30 left. When WSU center Robbie Cowgill was called for a travel at 7:26, Bennett called a timeout to settle down his team.
|AP Photo/Dino Vournas
"I liked the way they kept their poise when Cal got it back to 10," Bennett said. "Some of it was our defense, much of it was that they were just off."
The Bears begged to differ with Coach Bennett's assessment. "They played great defense," Ubaka insisted. "We missed some shots, but there's a reason we missed them. We didn't miss a lot of open shots."
Braun saw through Bennett's explanation, too. "Yes, we missed shots, and we missed a lot of shots against Stanford. I believe, when a team plays well, you give them credit. At the same time, Eric had a couple of threes in and out, Jerome's rimmed around, and a couple of lay-ups rimmed out too. We make some of those and it's a different game. They make it tough on you."
Anderson faced a tough double-team all night. "They had a lot of answers for us - cutting it to 10 and with the ball - that was a momentum shift," the freshman post man said. "We never gave up - that's something this team is never going to do, no matter who we play. We had stretches where we looked good, but they converted." Anderson finished the night with 17 points and eight rebounds, but also had three turnovers.
"I've never faced that kind of double-team," Anderson said. "They came so quick, it was hard to turn and pass to the open shooters. They did a great job coming across, and it forced me to make some bad passes. You've got to give them a lot of credit."
Cal next faces an enigmatic Washington Husky team. Expected to contend for the Pac-10 crown with UCLA, Washington's one-point loss at Stanford Thursday night leaves them 1-4 in the conference and languishing in eighth place. Still, with their size, they will provide a major challenge for Braun's troop of intrepid freshmen.
Kevin Johnson brought about 30 young people from his St. Hope Academy in Sacramento to the game, and was warmly received at halftime.
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