The California Golden Bears (14-6, 6-2) can stretch out their Pac-10 Conference lead a bit more Sunday at Arizona.
With their 78-70 win at Tempe -- and combined with losses by USC, Stanford and UCLA -- the pack of five teams that trailed the Bears by just one game was reduced to one.
Arizona (11-9, 5-3) won its third straight game Thursday, beating Stanford 76-68 to set up Sunday's battle, which ends the first round of the conference schedule.
"We want to continue to win, continue to separate ourselves so we can win the Pac-10 championship," said Cal senior Jamal Boykin, who scored a career-high 25 points at Arizona State. "We want to be consistent, we want to be stable."
Cal coach Mike Montgomery said the next game is always the biggest, especially in such a tightly packed conference.
"Every game for us is one where it could be the one that puts us over the top or it could be the one that buries us," Montgomery said. "The league is that way, and we have to realize that."
The Bears will face Arizona without junior center Markhuri Sanders-Frison, who stayed home in the Bay Area because of back spasms. The plan originally involved Sanders-Frison joining the team on Friday, but that was scrapped.
"It doesn't make any sense," Montgomery said. "He has not practiced. I'd rather have him stay home and try to get ready for next week."
CAL 78, ARIZONA STATE 70: The Bears shot 51 percent against one of the Pac-10's stingiest defenses, thanks in part to the success inside of senior forward Jamal Boykin
The Bears tried hiding Boykin at the bottom of the Sun Devils' matchup zone, and having him spring free to take entry passes from the wing. They call it "ghost."
"Remember Casper the Friendly Ghost?" coach Mike Montgomery said. "You can't see him ... i.e., the ghost."
"We get under the basket, almost out of bounds, and wait to see a hole and we flash to the ball," said Boykin, who shot 10-for-13 to score a career-high 25 points and also had 10 rebounds. "Because we're behind our man, it's hard for him to identify where we are. Like Casper, you can't see the man. That worked a lot tonight."
The Bears led early and survived Arizona State runs of 11-0 in the first half and 13-2 in the second half.
The latter allowed the Sun Devils to pull within 67-66 with three minutes left, but sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez responded with a huge 3-pointer, giving the Bears some breathing room.
Patrick Christopher made six straight free throws in the final minute to ice the game.
And there are good reasons. When Randle is at his best, he drives the Golden Bears to great heights. He was brilliant two weeks ago, scoring 39 points and dishing nine assists in a win at Washington State.
But in two of the next three games, Randle struggled mightily. He had eight turnovers and scored a season-low five points while battling a sore knee in a loss at Washington two weeks ago.
On Jan. 23, he shot just 4-for-13, missed all six of his 3-point tries and turned the ball over seven times in a grind-it-out 65-61 win over Oregon State. Five of those turnovers came down the stretch as the Beavers eroded most of a 15-point Cal lead.
Still, Montgomery avoided an hysterical response afterward, partly because the two are joined at the hip for the remainder of this season, partly because Randle has helped guide the Bears to first place in the Pac-10.
And mostly because Montgomery knows how hard Randle is trying to be the player his coach wants.
"He just needs to do his job," Montgomery said. "He's a very conscientious kid. He wants to do the right thing. He's better than that. I want him to be better than that.
"If he's going to handle the ball, he's got to take care of it. He's just got to. It's really simple: Everybody's got to do their thing."
Randle, who acknowledged earlier in the week that his knee was so sore he shouldn't have played against Washington, understands his responsibility to the team.
"We made some dumb passes. ... I made a couple turnovers down the stretch," he said. "When they made their run, it was all on turnovers."
ON THE SPOT: Although they got at least 20 points from three different players, the Bears got no help offensively Thursday from perhaps their steadiest player. Senior F Theo Robertson, who entered the contest averaging 14.3 points, was scoreless and missed his only four shots. He appeared tentative as the game went on, bypassing several open looks late in the game. The Bears will need him back on his game Sunday at Arizona.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "They have given us problems. We'll take a win any day of the week, but we're not happy with the way we played." -- Senior Theo Robertson, after the Bears' 65-61 win over Oregon State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Injuries continue to stalk the Bears. They have been without would-be starting post player Harper Kamp (knee) all season. They played six games during their nonconference schedule without starting SF Theo Robertson (foot), and played five in a row without sixth-man Jorge Gutierrez (sprained knee) before he returned for a brief stint in the win over Oregon State. C Markhuri Sanders-Frison (back spasms) continues to struggle, but a healthy Gutierrez could be huge for the Bears.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Jamal Boykin, F Omondi Amoke, F Theo Robertson, G Patrick Christopher, G Jerome Randle. Key Subs -- C Markhuri Sanders-Frison, C Max Zhang, G Jorge Gutierrez, G D.J. Seeley.
Washington 84, Cal 69
Cal 89, Oregon 57
Cal 65, Oregon State 61
Cal 78, Arizona State 70
at Arizona, Sunday, Jan. 31
at USC, Thursday, Feb. 4
at UCLA, Saturday, Feb. 6
vs. Washington, Feb. 11
IN FOCUS: Last year's 83-77 win at McKale Center was the Bears' first road victory over Arizona since 1995. Cal will need another big effort from its four senior starters and must not allow Arizona to create second chances with offensive rebounds.