Following the events of Saturday night, it’s safe to say that the basketball prowess of Cal’s opponents down south has yet to be matched.
Both games commenced in a similar fashion; the first halves saw the Bears contesting the Pac-12 royalty point by point, with several ties and lead changes as the clock wound down. Though the blue and gold are known for their steadiness and deliberate offense under head coach Mark Fox’s administration, their early strategy against the USC Trojans seemed to match their pace.
The Trojans got up and down the court with lightning speed, almost as if they were charged by the electrifying energy in the air in Haas Pavilion that Thursday night. At first, the Bears tailed them with such surprising tenacity that the disparity between the two teams in ranks and numbers seemed to vanish. However, the blue and gold’s early trouble on the board was a herald of woe for the 20 minutes of basketball that were yet to come.
The Trojans decided that they had no time to waste, exploding for an 8-0 run to put them up by double digits five minutes into the second half. The Bears are known to be a defensive team, but this defense was nowhere to be found as the Trojans completely obliterated all that was left of Cal’s defense — the Trojans turned corners to score easy layups without any kind of resistance, fueling their scoring run.
Whether it was decisively determined or forced, the Bears seemed to be back to their old steady, calculated, no-nonsense offensive style in the second half; this didn’t do the blue and gold any favors, however, as there was not much movement on the offensive end as the Trojans showcased their extreme talent for getting back defensively in the timeliest manner.
From meticulously executed out-of-bounds plays to organized offense, the Trojans’ performance was undoubtedly a testament to the regard to which their organization is held, not just in the Pac-12 but the entire nation.
As the final minutes of the second half slipped away, every potential comeback Cal still had in it was crushed yet again by the overwhelming Trojans, eventually resulting in a 77-63 Cal defeat. USC star Isaiah Mobley put on a show, recording a near double-double with 19 points and nine rebounds; Drew Peterson trailed not far behind with 17 points and nine rebounds. Mobley seriously did it all, dominating the paint — all while being guarded well by Andre Kelly — as well as shooting 67% from beyond the arc. Four Cal players recorded double-digit scoring, with Kelly leading the way with 19, but it just wasn’t enough to weather the red and gold storm.
“They were crashing hard from all positions,” said forward Grant Anticevich. “A lot of times we lost focus and got mismatched a couple of times in transition, and they snuck up on us there, attacking the glass hard.”
The first half of the UCLA game, eerily similar to the one the Bears played only two days prior, featured five ties and four lead changes, with Cal going head-to-head with one of the top teams in the country. When playing teams as good as UCLA, the last thing the Bears should do is not expect consequences for small mistakes such as mishandling the ball, as early Cal turnovers led to the Bruins capitalizing on those errors.
As Kelly put it, “These teams make you pay when you turn it over.”
UCLA did exactly that. Though both teams shot horrendously from beyond the arc — maybe the Golden State Warriors’ shooting slump was contagious — the Bruins finished the blue and gold off on their own territory, converting the 15 Cal turnovers to 17 points and ending the game with an 8-point lead.
The matchup against the Bruins showcased how much the Bears rely on Kelly for production in the paint as he recorded a game-high of 22 points, the only player on the Cal roster with double digits. If the Bears hope to improve their game, they need to be able to develop several consistent weapons to put points on the board, not just Kelly’s deadly yet insufficient post-ups.
When asked about his teammates’ relatively lackluster performance, Kelly said “Just credit to UCLA. Grant (Anticevich) had a great game against them last year and I think they definitely remembered that.”
At the end of the day, the Bears put up two extremely hard-fought performances against two of the best teams in the nation. Despite mistakes on the board and in handling the ball, the blue and gold exhibited admirable resilience as they refused to let either team lead by a comfortable amount in all 40 minutes of basketball.
“There’s no shame in laying it out there against the best teams and falling short,” Fox said. “It doesn’t mean that you’re a failure. We failed today, but these kids competed in a way that I was really pleased with.”
The Bears are now 2-3 in conference play and 9-7 overall. Although Cal may have suffered two back-to-back losses, fans should remember that no matter how many NBA draft picks USC and UCLA produce and how many times they leave Haas Pavilion with the upper hand, Berkeley will forever be the school that Frank Ocean chose to reference.