This was a weird game for large stretches. The result was not weird, though, and that is the most important takeaway from this one as the Bears took care of business against an inferior UCLA Bruins team and are now just one game behind Oregon for the top spot in the Pac-12.
While UCLA is a team that appears to be less than the sum of its parts, they are talented and were desperate going into this matchup. Joe Lunardi had the Bruins as one of his next four out entering the contest and their NCAA Tournament hopes are hanging by a thread now.
The Bears got off to a flying start and led 13-1. It took the Bruins 4 minutes and 55 seconds to hit a field goal. At that point in the game I thought the Bears would run away with the contest as the defense was suffocating the Bruins offense.
The Bears were also doing well on the glass to start the game and hitting three-pointers at a great clip. The problem was that the Bears could not hit their two-point field goals.
Isaac Hamilton started spamming his floater and Thomas Welsh could not be stopped on the offensive glass (along with the rest of his team as the Bears' rebounding fell off for a large portion of the first half) and the Bruins clawed their way back into the contest.
Back to the strangeness of this contest: at halftime the Bears were shooting 4-15 on two-point field goals and 6-13 on three-point field goals. UCLA shot 11-28 on two-point field goals and 0-5 on three-point field goals. UCLA out-rebounded Cal 26-21.
I think a few things played into the strangeness of the first half. I was surprised that Welsh had so much success rebounding (he had 10 in the first half). Having Okoroh not get into foul trouble would have helped, but Rooks was doing such a good job of rebounding during the past few games that it was still surprising.
It felt like Cal should have had a larger lead than just a 33-25 advantage at half for a few reasons. Bryce Alford scored just two points on 1-7 from the field and the Bruins did not make a three-pointer in the first half. The Bears committed just three turnovers and scored 12 points off of Bruins turnovers.
The biggest reason behind the Bears holding just an eight point lead was that Jordan Matthews struggled big time as he shot just 1-4 from beyond the arc and had just three points.
The second half saw a more well-rounded offensive effort from the Bears. The Bears jumped out to a 15 point lead at 47-32 but, as they had done in the first half, the Bruins refused to go away quietly. At one point the lead was cut down to four at 59-55, largely due to Alford finding his jumper for a few minutes.
Down the stretch, though, Bird and Brown made clutch plays and the Bruins struggled to make free throws as the Bears closed this one out 75-63.
A few more takeaways from this matchup:
- What was up with the free throw shooting? I know the Bears aren't too good at free throws, so shooting 13-25 was not surprising. The Bruins, though, shot 9-19 from the line. Alford made just 5 of 9.
- It was good to see Bird continue to play well. He was huge with 20 points on 7-12 from the field and 5-8 from downtown. Bird coming into his own takes pressure off of Matthews when he has an off night like this one.
- Foul trouble diminished Singer's playing time in the first half and he never really found his rhythm in the game.
- Matthews had an off night or this one would have been out of reach in the first half. He had several open looks that he usually puts away, but it just wasn't his night. USC is a better team than UCLA, so we're going to need Matthews to hit a few more of his open looks against the Trojans. I like his chances of having a bounce-back game.
- Rabb and Brown fouled just one time each and that is a recipe for success. What is not a recipe for success is the free throw shooting struggles. It would be a shame if Cal's season ends in March due to poor free throw shooting ala John Calipari's Memphis teams back in the day.
The Bears have grown as a team as the season has gone along and have put themselves into a great position to perhaps win the Pac-12 regular season championship. Cal is also in a very good spot to secure a first round bye in the conference tournament.
USC will provide a stern test as they look to keep their season from flying off of the tracks as March approaches. They will be desperate for a resume-building win over a good Cal team, so the Bears have to be ready to play their brand of basketball. A good close to the season and Cal could move up a few rungs in the NCAA Tournament seeding.
For now, though, let's enjoy beating the Bruins. It's always nice to get a win over the highly-touted team from the South and continue the charge towards a potential conference championship.
Go Bears! Beat USC!