The California Golden Bears have faced many tests this year. But the only thing missing from this season was a signature win against a nationally respected opponent. They finally got one Friday night.
Cal stormed off to an 18 point lead early and battled off every rally by the Louisville Cardinals Friday night to triumph 77-62 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This earns them a date with top seeded Duke in the final game of the second round Sunday at 5:20 PM EST/2:20 PM PST.
The Big Three charged us to victory in this one. Patrick Christopher got Cal going early with three triples and 13 first half points. Jerome Randle bridged the gap in between the starting and closing runs, including a highlight worthy buzzer beater that deflated the first half Louisville run. Last but definitely not least, Theo Robertson played clutch, going on his own 8-0 spurt at one point in the second half and hitting the clutch 3 late to stave off the last Cardinals comeback.
It was a valiant effort from an undermanned team. The Omondi Amoke issue could've easily undermined the entire tournament run, and the Bears could've gone into this game with a doom-and-gloom mindset. But it was clear from the opening tip we weren't getting that team, and it's been pretty clear all year long this team is not about doom and gloom.
Although it felt like that shot clock deal was a bad omen, it did seem like a huge benefit to be playing this game past midnight local time. The later it got, the more sluggish Louisville looked--playing a game close to party time for 20-somethings could not have been a big help for them. Cal looked the fresher team early on, as they nailed shot after shot after shot while the Cardinals seemed to be sleepwalking early on.
The full court press bothered our guys for the middle part of the game as the Cardinals played like the more desperate team, but as time wore on and Louisville couldn't get over the hump, their effort stagnated. First Randle, then Gutierrez, then Christopher, then Robertson carried the ballhandling responsibilities, and they all wore out the Louisville press. Randle did turn the ball over 5 times and the rest of the team had 15 overall, but a lot of that was from extensive gambling with steals in the half court, poor passing by the Bears themselves, and some heavy body contact that wasn't called either way (Louisville had their fair share of turnovers too). By the second half the Golden Bears were able to exploit the matchup press by passing away from the trap and getting some mini 3 on 2 or 2 on 1 breaks that led to big layups and scores. Easy points, as I call them. You've gotta get your easy points if your team plans on growing big and strong.
Two big statistical anomalies in this one for the Bears that reflected their depth plight. Most assists? Jamal Boykin with 5, followed by Jorge Gutierrez with 4 and Christopher with 3. In reality, no one player dominated the ball; it was a great passing game for the Bears as every player did their part to try and get the ball to the best place for someone to make the best possible shot.
Rebounds? Christopher with 8, Robertson with 5, Randle with 5, which is pretty extraordinary--when was the last time the three leading scorers in a game were also the three leading rebounders? Cal struggled to hold their own on the glass in the first half as Louisville weaved their way back into it. They got much better in the second as PC set the tone by hitting the glass while letting the rest of his teammates carry more of the offensive load. The seniors sure offset the loss of Amoke by doing their best to compete on the defensive and the offensive end; they had to play both sides of the ball to get the job done.
As expected the Cardinals had their way inside; Samardo Samuels and Rakeem Buckles (Who? Someone who is apparently tall and athletic and is a matchup nightmare for us, that's who.) went 16 for 19 on Boykin, Robertson, Max Zhang and the brief glimpses of Markhuri Sanders-Frison; they pretty much got what they wanted, but with the Bears nailing big threes throughout they needed more from the outside. Unfortunately, it was their outside shooting that deserted them as the rest of the team went a stupendous 10 for 41. Gutierrez deserves a lot of credit for shutting down Jerry Smith, and Randle's aggressiveness seemed to throw off Edgar Sosa's game, as he tried to out-Randle Randle's attack mode and ended up drawing two charges.
While we'd all go crazy if we shocked the world Sunday, this was the win that really sealed the deal on a fantastic 2009-10 campaign. Cal has won their 24th game, the most since 1960. They have won almost every game they were supposed to win, they have a conference championship, they've regained their national mojo. Anything from here on out would be gravy.
Although I have to admit, it would be really, really awesome if we could shock the world.
Finally, thanks for the following people who answered the five questions from last night's postgame thread; these Golden Commenters are well worth reading for their cogent, enlightening, or just fun responses: ikoolykedat, CalBear81, bear88, Ohio Bear, ieeebear, boomtho, & PaulThomas. Here are the best answers.
How Cal handled the matchup press. The press got to us a bit in the middle of the both halves, but we did a pretty good job. We ran some nice cross screens to get one person doubled, often leaving Theo or PC to bring up the ball, which they did well. I can only recall PC turning the ball over once or twice, and I don’t know if Theo did at all (ed note: He did, but only over halfcourt iirc). ~boomtho
Player of the game: Theo Robertson. His time as a Bear is running very short now, so I’ll just say this: enjoy every fucking shot he takes for the rest of the season, because he will not be replaced anytime soon. He is everything a college basketball player should be— smart, strong, picture-perfect in shooting form, and so unbelievably clutch. ~PaulThomas
Most pleasant surprise: Honestly, our ability to attack the press and move the ball down court. It wasn’t perfect as we still turned over the ball several times because of the press, but all-in-all it was better than anything i could’ve hoped for. ~ieeebear
Montgomery's strategizing: I was impressed. We obviously had a plan for breaking the press. And his use of Zhang was unexpected but effective. ~Ohio Bear
How Cal matches up with Duke: Fairly well if we push the ball and keep it uptempo. We don’t have the bigs to challenge their big whites, but we do have some athletic guys in the backcourt that can cause some havoc for coach K. We’ll have to guard the 3 well since dook can make it rain like we can. ~ikoolykedat
Speaking of Duke, more on them to come later this weekend. Keep your eyes open!