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Cal basketball defeats USC in 74-73 thriller

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Ivan Rabb’s heroics seal the deal

Ivan Rabb was money when it mattered
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

When Ivan Rabb signaled his intention to return to Cal for a second season, it felt like a gift. I certainly couldn’t blame Jaylen Brown for departing after the 2015-16 campaign, especially when he ended up being selected third overall in the NBA draft. In any event, I’ve been trying to enjoy the present of another season with Rabb even when things go off the rails for the Bears as a team. In tonight’s matchup with USC at the Galen Center in Los Angeles, it was great to both appreciate Rabb’s talents and watch Cal hang on for a much-needed victory.

The line between winning and losing never seemed thinner than on this night. Cal got its first true road victory against the #25 team in the country to improve to 11-5 and 2-2 in the Pac-12. After hanging with teams like Virginia and Arizona but failing to close them out, a 74-73 win over the Trojans was a satisfying conclusion for the Bears. Meanwhile, USC lost their second game in the last three to drop to 15-2 and are also 2-2 in conference. I expected a close contest, and indeed the game came down to the final two plays.

Naturally, they both involved Rabb. As he backed down Chimezie Metu and went up for a shot, Metu impeded Rabb’s arm and was whistled for the foul. That put the big man at the line with 5.2 seconds remaining, staring at hideous neon shirts in the student section and hearing the arena erupt into bedlam. Rabb was a cool customer and swished them both, bringing audible cheers from the Cal fans in attendance. Following the timeout, the Trojans went to Jordan McLaughlin for the potential game-winning shot after inbounding under their own hoop. McLaughlin drove past Mullins, but his layup attempt was rejected by Rabb and USC coach Andy Enfield reacted in disbelief. Rabb’s teammates gave their star a series of chest bumps to put an exclamation point on things.

The ESPNU telecast showed how Rabb deals with double teams by making immediate passes or first dribbling toward the hoop before finding an open teammate. He certainly showed nice vision when he hit Kingsley Okoroh for an uncontested bucket. Rabb also stepped out to make a triple in another demonstration of his improved range. He has accomplished that feat in three straight games now. At other points, Rabb hit a midrange shot directly from an inbounds play and an alley-oop dunk. The most dazzling highlight was a reverse lay-in after fighting through multiple defenders. On the night he racked up 17 points and 8 rebounds, not to mention 3 steals as well as 2 blocks.

It wasn’t a perfect effort, but there are plenty of accolades to go around. After the UCLA game I hoped to see more strong play from Don Coleman. He complied by scoring 12 points off the bench including some determined drives to the hoop. Only a hard foul on De’Anthony Melton that was ruled a Flagrant 1 marred his evening. The only Trojan reserve with more than one hoop was Shaqquan Aaron, who finished with six points. After hardly getting off the bench against the Bruins, Kameron Rooks was at least able to perform for 14 minutes while sporting a large knee brace. Grant Mullins was only 1-5 from outside but contributed five assists. Okoroh had three more swats to reach 100 for his career. He also used his size to collect an and-one opportunity from a Mullins miss. Jabari Bird tied a team high with a trio of three-pointers, which were much appreciated even though he only made one other shot.

The Cal defense did have its weak moments. The Trojans got back in the game with a 10-0 run that put them in front 53-51 with 12:09 to play. Metu missed his first three shots of the night but soon was raining elbow jumpers, scoring ten consecutive Trojan points as the first half wound down. After amassing 15 points against Stanford, McLaughlin got 13 before the second half began. That included a buzzer-beating heave from half court to tie the contest at 36. He’d end up with 20, but the Bears lucked out because the 83% free-throw shooter made just three of eight foul shots in this one. I don’t look forward to playing more games against the freshman Melton, who can do a little of everything on the court and forced three Cal turnovers. He was also the only USC player in double figures outside of Metu and McLaughlin. Elijah Stewart had a quiet night punctuated by a charge that left multiple Bears on the deck.

I've been waiting for Charlie Moore to put the team on his shoulders in recent games. He seemed passive in the early going, collecting only two points in the first half. That's better than taking copious ill-advised shots, but to some extent Cal needs him to assert his will. He did just that in the final 20 minutes, hitting a layup on the first possession and draining a three from a Mullins assist soon afterward. Moore did get into some trouble when it came to ball control and was tagged with three turnovers. He redeemed himself by making a very deep trey with 9:05 to go. Nevertheless, his biggest shot behind the arc came with 3:42 remaining in the game when he knotted the score at 68. Moore had 14 points in the period, and his team would need every one.

The return of Rooks and rise of Coleman meant that Roger Moute a Bidias didn’t see any action. His minutes were already on the decline, and I wonder whether we’ll see him when the Bears face Washington at Haas on Thursday. Stephen Domingo didn’t get off the pine either and hasn’t scored since December 21. It would also be ideal to get Sam Singer, who was held scoreless with two assists and a pair of rebounds, more involved in the offensive flow going forward.

All in all, it was heartening to see Rabb come through in the clutch and make this a productive road trip. Of course, I would not be singing the same tune had McLaughlin found the twine as time expired. Rabb said that he didn’t want to leave his man at first, but the Trojans “just funnelled him to the basket where I could make something happen.” Cuonzo Martin was suitably emotional in saying: “Your will to win is what won you this game.”