In the opening 20 minutes, Cal played their best half of basketball at Haas since the USC game on January 3rd. Both teams came out playing man to man. Obviously energized by his ESPN debut, Patrick Christopher slammed home a backboard pass from Jerome Randle to give the home team a 9-6 lead. New Mexico regained the lead on a J.R. Giddens jumper, 19-18. Ryan Anderson nailed a right wing trey to put Cal back in front, 21-19. The Bears led for the rest of the half. The Lobos' Chad Toppert hit from behind the arc to make it 23-22.
From that point Cal went on a 14-2 run to take control of the game. Hardin, now guarding Giddens, stole the ball and drove in for a dunk. Anderson went inside and scored twice, the second being an old school three point play. Anderson finished the opening 20 minutes with 14 points and 4 rebounds.
The Bears played some of their best defense of the season. They held the visitors to 11 for 31 from the field, 35.5%. The Lobos fired up 18 threes, but made just 5. Cal outscored New Mexico 18-8 in the paint. The visitors scored the final 5 points of the half to close to 37-29 at the break.
The second half opened with 2 Randle turnovers, and New Mexico converted both to cut Cal's lead to 4. After a Hardin free throw, the visitors scored 2 more buckets, and Cal's lead was all but gone. The home team stabilized, and extended the lead back to 7 when Anderson nailed a three to make it 48-41.
Hardin picked up his 4th foul with 9:46 left, and the Bears began to struggle defensively. Lobo post Daniel Faris scored inside with 7:49 left, was fouled by Eric Vierneisel, and converted the free throw to tie the game at 53. It was close the rest of the way.
Hardin came back in, and almost immediately fouled out at the 6:36 mark when he body-blocked Giddens along the baseline. Cal switched to a zone to try and slow down New Mexico. With 2:20 remaining, Anderson drew a double team on the right block, and hit Jamal Boykin for the bucket and foul. The free throw made it 66-61, and it looked like the Bears were safe.
Giddens drove, scored and was fouled by Boykin, and the he converted the 3 point play to cut the lead to 2. Cal failed to get the ball across the timeline on the ensuing possession, and the turnover gave the ball back to New Mexico with a chance to tie. Giddens was fouled again, but he missed both free throws, and Vierneisel grabbed the key rebound.
Randle committed his 5th turnover and this time Giddens short shot in the lane tied it at 66 with 51 seconds left. Giddens was called for a questionable foul on Anderson, but the Cal star missed both free throws. However, Boykin secured a critical offensive board, and the Bears had another chance. They called timeout with 31 seconds to go to set up the crucial play.
Hardin to the Hoop
Boykin appeared to intercept a pass intended for Randle, drove to the basket and was fouled. Boykin said, "I knew time was running out. I don't even know if the pass was for me." His 2 clutch free throws secured the victory for the home team.
The statistics reveal Cal's defensive troubles after the intermission. After holding New Mexico to 35.5% in the first half, the visitors went for 58% in the second 20 minutes. New Mexico was just 9 for 20 from the line. Coach Steve Alford talking about their free throw struggles during the season, said, "It got us tonight."
Giddens was as good as advertised. He went for 26 points and 13 rebounds. His coach said, "He's going to have a really good pro career." Cal coach Ben Braun was equally impressed. Said Braun, "We did a pretty good job on him and he still had 26 and 13." Braun noted the job that Hardin did: "We really thought that DeVon had the range and the quickness (to guard Giddens). I thought he at least slowed Giddens down."
Cal nearly gave it away at the line. The home team was 22 for 31, and Anderson missed three. 16 Cal turnovers did not help either. After a season that saw Cal lose close game after close game, the Bears made the key plays down the stretch in this one.
Their reward is a trip to Ohio to play last year's national runner-up. As Eric Vierneisel said, "I just want to keep playing, survive, and advance."
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