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Utah 73, Cal 64: Poeltl's revenge as Bears fall to Utes in SLC

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Cal can't match Utah's interior scoring dominance in a 73-64 loss to the not-particularly-running Utes.

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

No controversy, no bad variance, no 2nd guessing. Sometimes you just get flat out beat.

Save for a six minute stretch wrapped around halftime and a two minute flurry just past the midway point of the 2nd half, the Bears were thoroughly controlled by a very focused effort from the Utah Utes. Unsurprisingly, that effort was spearheaded by Jakob Poeltl, who responded to one of his worst games of the year in Berkeley with one of his best games of the year last night. He finished with 21 points on just 10 shot attempts, and if he had shot well from the free throw line it could have been even worse. He drew at least 10 fouls, and Cal never really had an answer for him all night.

The Bears made their challenge even tougher by quickly falling into a hole. It was 24-11 in favor of the Utes after 9:30 of game time, and the Bears came out with a defensive game plan that wasn't stopping the Utes from getting open looks. A flurry of three pointers amidst a 16-5 run to end the half brought the Bears back, but Utah responded with a run of their own to build the lead back up, and this time the Bears didn't have enough juice for a comeback.

I think the marked contrast between this game and last Saturday's Arizona game gives you a stark illustration of why it's so hard to win on the road in this conference. Against Arizona, didn't it seem like the Bears got to every 50/50 ball? That players were quicker to rebounds, less likely to fumble, more in control? And against Utah, it felt like the exact opposite. Such are the challenges of playing basketball above 4,000 feet on a Wednesday night with only so much time to prep amidst travel.

This game was frustrating in that it's another road loss, but compared to painful losses to Oregon, Oregon State, and Stanford I was much more zen. Utah came into this game with a solid gameplan, they executed it well, and Cal would have had to play really well to deal with it against perhaps the biggest home court advantage in the conference. That Cal was unable to is, I suppose, disappointing and frustrating. But it ultimately wasn't hugely surprising. Mostly, it sets up a critically important game against Colorado. Win in Boulder and the Bears can start dreaming about a winning streak with a stretch of 5 home games in 7.

Various thoughts:

  • The only reason Cal was even remotely in the game at one point down the stretch was Jaylen Brown, who kept Cal afloat with his increasingly uncanny ability to get into the key and either finish or draw fouls (occasionally both!) It's a shame that he put together one of his best free throw shooting nights in a game that couldn't be swung on that type of variance. Still, it's encouraging that he continues to show growth in his ability to dominate games for stretches. There's going to be a game at some point this season that he wins almost singlehandedly. If somebody else had stepped up offensively, or if Utah's offense wasn't so on-point, his 27 might have been enough.
  • Utah consistently double teamed Ivan Rabb, mostly by having Poeltl swing towards him whenever he caught the ball. It's a credit to Krystkowiak that Utah was able to do it without giving up anything once Cal swung the ball away from the double team. After leading Cal to victory over Utah in Berkeley, Ivan went for only 11 points.
  • Jordan Mathews attempts about 6 three pointers/game, and his ability to get those attempts off is a critical source of offense for the Bears. He only got off 2 attempts against Utah, and none in the 2nd half. Again, credit to Krystkowiak and the Utes.
  • Poeltl got many of his buckets/drawn fouls off of the pick and roll, in large part because Cal had a ton of trouble stopping the initial drives of Bonam and Taylor (combined 12 assists). I like King and Kam as one on one defenders, but they aren't quite as strong when they're forced to move their feet . . . at least, against a big as skilled as Poeltl.
  • 24 fouls committed is just too much, and in this particular case we really can't blame the refs. In isolation I'd just chalk this up to our inability to deal with Poeltl when he's playing close to his best, but we foul too much in nearly every game. Six players committed 3 or more fouls, and we only had two intentional fouls at the end of the game.
We're done with Poeltl for the rest of the regular season, and a split with Utah is hardly a disaster. How we feel about this game will be very much impacted by events on Sunday night.