Cal's win over USC last night was notable for a number of reasons. It was Cal's first win in the Galen Center on their fifth attempt. Harper Kamp turned in one of the most impressive efforts of his career on both ends of the floor. But what really stood out for me after watching the game and listening to Mike Montgomery's post-game talk with Roxy Bernstein and Todd McKim was the job that Monty did switching up defenses and players around the court to hold on to the win despite a freakish three point barrage from Donte Smith and poor free throw shooting from every Bear that got to the line.
USC's struggles against zone defenses have been well chronicled, so I was somewhat surprised to see Cal come out in a man-to-man defense early on. USC took advantage with some solid dribble penetration that led to open shots and the Bears fell behind 16-8. But then Monty hit on the perfect lineup to slow USC down - he went big with Bak Bak playing the three. Bak, Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison clogged the lane and really took Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson out of the offensive flow. USC started settling for low percentage jumpers. Over the next 12:30 of the game Cal went on a 30-11 run that totally changed the complexion of the game. USC would have to play from behind the rest of the way.
But all of a sudden, USC found the weakness in the zone. The Trojans got the ball to one corner, forced the zone to swing to one side and pulled in help defenders, then quickly switched the ball around to Donte Smith, who eventually ended the game 8-12 from behind the arc. At one point Smith hit four straight 3's, single-handedly willing USC back into the game. Cal's bigs just weren't quick enough to flash out to the corner to bother Smith's quick release. After the barrage, Cal started overcompensating by pushing the zone out t0o far, and USC started getting easy baskets inside. So Monty changed the defense up again, going back to a man-to-man. With Vucevic sitting with four fouls USC was held scoreless for nearly 3 minutes and Smith only hit one more 3 pointer the rest of the way.
As discussed in the USC preview, getting the Trojans into foul trouble would be a great way to win the game. Well, the Bears did better than I'd ever expecting, forcing USC's best overall player (Vucevic) and best defender (Simmons) to the bench for long stretches. It's probably not a coincidence that Cal's offense was most successful when Simmons was on the bench. And the hidden benefit of opponent foul trouble is weaker defense - Harper Kamp was able to take advantage of Vucevic's need to avoid further fouls by getting cleaner looks near the basket.
Kamp was the ring leader, but credit needs to go to all of Cal's bigs for winning a match up that I thought they would not. Harper, MSF, Bak and Solomon combined for 40 points and 21 rebounds. Vucevic and Stepheson finished with just 14 and 16. It was nice to see Cal play a team with less depth for a change - Cal had fouls to give and they used them wisely, sending Stepheson and his ~50% free throw shooting to the line rather than giving up easy baskets.
The other unexpected positive contribution last night was from a much maligned group: Pac-10 refs. I know many of you may howl when you hear that, but it's only fair to give credit when it's due. Harper Kamp was pulled down (tackled, if you will) by Jio Fontan as he went up for what would have been an easy layup. Fontan had switched on to Harper on defense, and the Bears successfully identified the favorable match up. Fontan wisely recognized that and attempted to foul, but was a little to obvious about it. It wasn't a blatantly intentional foul, but on replay it's pretty clear that Fontan made no play for the ball as he yanked Harper down. So major kudos to a) any and all of the Cal staffers who lobbied the refs to go to the monitor to review the play, and b) the refs for listening, conferring, and ultimately making the right call. Harper hit both free throws, MSF followed with a nice hook shot, and Cal's lead was back up to 5 points. It was probably the biggest sequence of the game.
Now the Bears have successfully weathered the toughest stretch in the conference. Many of us feared that Cal could be sitting at 2-5 or even 1-6 at this point, particularly after losing at Stanford. Instead Cal has two eminently winnable games at home against Oregon and Oregon St., giving them the chance to finish the first half of the conference above .500 at 5-4. If they did that they would likely find themselves in the top half of the standings. But that's getting well ahead of ourselves - as USC will tell you, the Oregon schools won't just roll over and die. Still: optimism abounds, both for this year and the long term. This is a fun team to watch and as a fan sometimes that's all you can ask for.