On the heels of road losses to Arizona and USC that they could have won in the final two minutes, the Bears found themselves trailing 22-8 barely eight minutes into their game at UCLA.
"Obviously, had something good not happened pretty soon, it could have gotten ugly," coach Mike Montgomery said.
First place in the Pac-10 was at stake, not to mention the Bears' hopes of winning their first conference title in 50 years.
"All of a sudden we made a play -- I think Jerome (Randle) hit a 3," Montgomery recalled correctly. "Then it was like, 'We're OK.' We started playing defense and the rhythm of the game changed."
The Bears (15-8, 7-4) went on to post a 72-58 win over the Bruins, snapping a six-game losing streak in the series and winning at Pauley Pavilion for the first time in four seasons.
They did it with perhaps their best all-around effort of the season, getting obvious contributions from their three star senior perimeter players. Patrick Christopher and Theo Robertson each scored 20 points, and point guard Randle had 14 points and seven assists.
"I felt like everybody did a little bit more of what they're capable of," Montgomery said. "I thought Jerome did a marvelous job of running the team. He really was in charge, he was patient, hit the open guy, hit shots when he had the opportunity, never really panicked."
Cal's defense, which disappeared two nights earlier when USC assembled a hard-to-believe 25-0 run, turned the tide in the Bears' direction this time.
"Once our intensity level picked up, the game completely changed," Christopher said.
"We made a couple substitutions, got a little energy, starting playing very, very well," Montgomery echoed.
Three players willing to do the dirty work drew heavy praise afterward. Center Markhuri Sanders-Frison, forward Omondi Amoke and guard Jorge Gutierrez combined to provide 12 points, 16 rebounds and lots of muscle and hustle.
"The glitz and glamour of scoring is all good," Christopher said. "Those kind of players win championships."
--Cal led 30-17 at USC before surrendering an incomprehensible 25-0 run that lasted nearly 11 minutes and spanned both halves. Before the Bears scored again, USC had roared to a 42-30 lead.
--The Bears trailed 22-8 at UCLA before waking up. They outscored the Bruins 26-6 over the final 10 1/2 minutes of the half, using an 11-0 closing burst to take a 37-30 lead into the break.
ON THE SPOT: Cal is striving toward possibly winning its first conference championship in 50 seasons, so the Golden Bears are naturally turning away fans from 11,877-seat Haas Pavilion, right? No chance. The Bears are averaging just 8,327 fans for 12 games, although the numbers are a bit better -- 9,579 -- for five Pac-10 home dates. Still, the Bears are awaiting their first sellout of the season. With Washington and Washington State visiting this week, the players and coaches said they are eager to see a full house.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I told him after the game, he's the best point guard I've ever guarded." -- USC's Marcus Simmons, after Cal senior Jerome Randle scored 29 points against the Trojans.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: The Bears are in better shape for the NCAA Tournament than any team in the conference. Their RPI computer ranking has separated them from the pack, thanks to robust strength-of-schedule rating that was the result of non-conference losses to Kansas, Syracuse, Ohio State and New Mexico. Road losses at Arizona and USC knocked them into a four-way tie for first place, but the Bears responded with a 72-58 win at UCLA, giving them a 2-2 split of their four-game road stretch and giving them sole possession of first place once more.
Arizona 76, Cal 72
USC 66, Cal 63
Cal 72, UCLA 58
vs. Washington, Thursday, Feb. 11
vs. Washington State, Saturday, Feb. 13
at Oregon State, Thursday Feb. 18
at Oregon, Saturday, Feb. 20
vs. Arizona, Thursday, Feb. 25
IN FOCUS: The Bears go for a second straight season sweep of Washington State on Saturday in Berkeley, one month after Jerome Randle scored a career-high 39 points in the Bears' 93-88 win at Pullman, Wash. Cal hopes to do a better job this time of defusing WSU freshman G Reggie Moore, who scored a career-high 25 points in the first meeting.
--Senior G Jerome Randle scored 17 of his 29 points in the second half at USC, moving past Leonard Taylor into sixth on Cal's career scoring list. After adding 14 points at UCLA, Randle has 1,623 for his career. He also made six 3-point baskets at USC and four more against the Bruins, giving him a school-record 223.
--Senior F Theo Robertson suffered his second straight poor Thursday night performance in the loss at USC. One week after going scoreless in a win at Arizona State, the usually steady Robertson went without a field goal until the final 2 1/2 minutes against the Trojans, then missed a critical free throw in the final 10 seconds. But he answered that with 20 points, including three 3-pointers, in the win at UCLA.
--Junior C Markhuri Sanders-Frison, who had missed three of the team's previous six games with a back injury, returned against USC and played 14 scoreless minutes off the bench. He was crucial at UCLA, contributing six points, six rebounds and some much-needed muscle in the paint.