With the Trojans running (and we do mean running) a three-guard offense, an up-tempo game was to be expected, but the first half was surprisingly sedate and ended with Cal holding a 38-32 lead behind Patrick Christopher's 13 points and 6 rebounds.
A game of runs saw Cal have one more than the Trojans, enough to provide the margin of victory. The Golden Bears used a 21-8 run to break open a 17-all tie in the first half, then watched Tim Floyd's Trojan team go on an 11-0 run that spanned the intermission to get back within 2 at 38-36 a minute into the second session.
The teams traded baskets until Jerome Randle hit both free throws on a technical foul called on Davon Jefferson after a USC 3-point play, and ignited an 11-0 run in the next 73 seconds. Randle, Ryan Anderson and Jordan Wilkes all hit three-point shots in a 58-second span that opened up a 64-56 Cal lead.
SC answered with a 9-2 run of their own with Cal's points coming from Hardin free throws.
And then, out of nowhere, senior Eric Vierneisel took over the game for the Golden Bears. His back-to-back three point baskets began a run where the Bears scored on 10 straight possessions, logging 23 points in that span. When that streak (which included a 9-0 run) ran down, only 1:12 was left to play, and Cal was perched atop an 89-77 bulge.
"It felt good - it's been a struggle the first part of the season," said Vierneisel. "Tonight it was going in. I have confidence in my shot, my teammates and coaches have confidence in me."
Vierneisel's coach was effusive in his praise for his senior wing. "I'm really proud of Eric - he typified what competitive basketball is about. He struggled, went through an injury - his teammates, coaches and everybody knows he can knock down shots. I'm really proud of his game today - he played with extreme confidence - that's not easy for someone who has struggled.
"It's a great lesson - no matter what has happened in the past, you can help your team. His teammates showed him confidence by getting him the ball."
Freshman guard OJ Mayo was all that and a bag of chips, as the saying goes. Mayo took one-third of his team's shots (21 of their 62) and scored 18 of his team's final 34 points in the final 12:40 of the game. Mayo led all scorers with 34 points in 35 minutes. He added three rebounds and three assists as well.
"Mayo is a great scorer," said Christopher, who drew the difficult assignment of trying to contain him. "He can play point or wing, can score from anywhere, and can get to the line. He's a great player."
Enthusiastic Cal fans
Despite Cal's huge point total (no team had scored more than 62 against USC in their previous nine games, and the only team that broke 60 was #2 ranked Memphis State), the game was won where most basketball games are - on the boards and with team play. Cal won the battle of the boards 36-31 - as well as the sub-battle of the offensive boards, 13-8.
The Trojans finished with a tolerable 16-15 assist-to-turnover ratio after starting with a dreadful 3-10 in the first half. In the second half, the Bears' efficiency showed when they turned the ball over just 4 times while racking up 23 total assists for the game.
Jerome Randle set a career-high mark with nine assists; Christopher added a career-best seven assists to his team-high 24 points.
DeVon Hardin's 15 points and 10 rebounds gave him his first double-double since posting five in a row to start the season. Randle added 16 points and 5 rebounds to his passing prowess, and Ryan Anderson scored a quiet 15 points to go with 9 boards and 4 assists of his own.
The assists and rebounding led to team-balanced scoring, with Vierneisel logging a career-high 15 points off the bench after tallying just 39 in the entire non-conference schedule.
Conventional wisdom has UCLA and Washington State at the head of the Pac-10, with Oregon, USC, Stanford and Arizona in the next tier, followed by Cal, ASU and Washington as pretenders, and Oregon State the only team in the conference deemed "without a chance" to contend for an NCAA March berth.
Ignoring that conventional wisdom, the Beavers went to the McKale Center in Tucson to open against Arizona, and played the Wildcats even for the first 30 minutes of the game.
The Pac-10 will be wide-open all year. "In this league," said Braun, "any win you get will be a good win. You have to fight through adversity, fatigue, a lot. If you fall short, you live with it."
Vierneisel summed up the game this way: "Tonight answered a lot of questions we had coming in. You don't know what the first Pac-10 game would be like. We had the energy, and the result was gratifying."
Trojans coach Tim Floyd waxed eloquently about Cal. "We played pretty good defense for stretches, but this was a much better caliber opponent. They're a good basketball team. They're a team that can make this (Pac-10) race very interesting. They can score; they can shoot the three; they rebound."
No rest, no time to savor this win against a ranked opponent. As Braun likes to remind the writers every week, his team will play at least 10 games against ranked opponents in the conference this season, and Saturday afternoon the hurdle is the UCLA Bruins.
Asked how it is that Cal seems to manage to steal a game from UCLA every year recently, Hardin shot back "I'm not trying to steal a game from them. I'm trying to take one."
When asked about playing against Bruin uber-freshman Kevin Love, averaging 16 points and 10 boards per game, Hardin chuckled, "I'll be ready for him. Tell him to get ready for me."
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