Cal fans have worried all season long about earning a Pac-10 at-large berth. They might not have to worry about that anymore, as they're one win away from punching their ticket to the Dance.
After taking UCLA's best shot in the first half, California rallied early in the second half and staved off every Bruin rally to move onto the Pac-10 tournament final. The Golden Bears have now equalled their highest win total in a season (since the 1960 title) of 23, and have beaten the Bruins twice in LA this season. Jerome Randle (who passed Sean Lampley as Cal's all-time leading scorer in this game) kept the Bears in it early, and then the rest of his compadres came alive in the second half, especially Theo Robertson.
Win or lose, the Bears should have plenty to be hopping about on Sunday afternoon, but beating the Huskies to finish the Pac-10 season on a seven game winning streak could make a big difference between a good seed and a crap seed. The Huskies are very much on the bubble and will probably play very desperate on Saturday afternoon to try and get the automatic bid; a loss could send them to the NIT. Obviously, every motivating factor points to the Huskies being the team that needs this the most.
I'm sure Mike Montgomery and the Cal players would very much like to win the tournament crown, but it's not exactly a big deal if they don't. The Bears will be playing their third game in third nights, and I have to imagine that the team is pretty ragged after taking their best shot from UCLA. Although Washington didn't exactly light the world much less a lamppost on fire, expect Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas to be heavily motivated to take this one away from the Bears. Cal has to be ready to seize the moment before the Huskies can taste it.
If Cal comes out pressing a little too much and taking too many jumpers, they can expect a repeat of what happened in the first half yesterday. UCLA came out and executed their halfcourt sets very well. Michael Roll did his best to torture us one more time (16 points in the first half, 27 in all), but other Bruins like Jerime Anderson and Reeves Nelson gave us plenty of headaches as they went 6 for 6 combined from the field. Ball movement led to 12 assists for the Bruins (as opposed to 4 for the Bears), and some strong heady defense in transition (including a few bad Randle turnovers). Cal didn't seem able to break the defensive hustle early on.
Yet when the dust settled, and UCLA's strong first half play was done...their lead was 4, much in thanks to a clutch Randle 3 at the end of the first half when his defender backed up and allowed him to stroke it from 27. Kind of been the story of the Bruins all year long. Just not enough talent, not enough experience, not enough defense to play forty good minutes.
Cal? They have the talent, and they sure got the experience. And at the beginning of the second half, they ramped up the defense. After Dragovic nailed a 3 to give UCLA a 44-42 lead, Cal went on a 22-7 run to effectively end the game. UCLA shot over their heads in the first half and returned to Earth to start the second, missing their first four shots and going 2 of 11 to start things off. A lot of this has to do with the ramping up of defensive effort, but some of it also has to do with poor shot selection. The Bruins shot 38% in the half, which just isn't going to end well if you're playing Cal.
Randle was the player of the game (again) with an array of 3s, layups, pull up Js and one crazy floater. One more solid performance like that should lock up Pac-10 Tournament MVP honors. The game changer however? Gotta give it to Theo. He scored the first seven points of the second half, taking it to the rack against his man and nailing a 3 to put Cal ahead to stay. The rest of the Bears followed suit with the attack mentality, especially Patrick Christopher (13 points), and the UCLA defense crumbled. Cal shot 70% from the field in the second half and got 12 of their 17 baskets on layups. Add in 14 trips to the line and the Cal offense just couldn't be stopped when it mattered.
The Bears's defense leaves something to be desired in this one, and will definitely be a huge question mark going into March Madness; UCLA should never score 39 points in a half on us, no matter how many lucky shots they make. The Bruins took advantage of our pressing and got plenty of their own easy opportunities in the first half. Cal did their defensive thing for a few minutes and that was enough, but you can expect they'll have to play much better if they want to beat tougher foes out there.
For now though, it's the coup de grace of the Pac-10 season. Expect a run and gun affair if Washington has their way, but hopefully Cal will do what they can to slow the pace down and keep them from attacking the rim at will. The Bears generally enjoy playing the Huskies, so hopefully that'll be added motivation to keep the fatigued seniors from running out of gas Saturday afternoon.
Let's get this done Bears. Finish the conference season in style, earn the best seed you can get and provide us the best hope that our tournament life will be long and prosperous.