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Cal hoops clears last hurdle before Maui, defeating Wofford 79-65

Darius McNeill enjoys his best game as a Golden Bear.

NCAA Basketball: Pac-12 Media Day Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When I went on a much-needed vacation back in July, even the little steps I took to prepare for it were exciting. I gathered passports, shopped for snacks, packed, and performed other mundane tasks, but they meant something bigger. I was getting ready to see Alaskan (and Canadian) wildlife!

That’s what the game against Wofford felt like, also referred to as Maui on the Mainland. Thursday’s night’s contest at Haas Pavilion would be the precursor to the Cal men’s basketball team departing for Hawaii for their appearance in the Maui Invitational. To the credit of Wyking Jones and his charges, nobody was looking past the Terriers to their next opponent Wichita State as Cal came away with the 79-65 win.

The first half was a fairly lively affair, with the teams trading baskets. Cal fans are getting to see what the newcomers are able to contribute, although that was fairly inevitable given the roster situation heading into the season. Justice Sueing is having fun on the court, and his reaction to drilling a first-half three said as much. He chipped in with 8 points and 4 boards. Grant Anticevich continues to show promise getting buckets in the paint, going 2-3 from the floor in 13 minutes. Juhwan Harris-Dyson had only 2 points and 3 rebounds, but it was good to see him in his first season action. Deschon Winston played just 7 minutes and Austin McCullough only got a cameo.

Guard Fletcher Magee was the obvious standout for Wofford, scoring 24 first-half points on 8-10 shooting (5-7 from three-point range) including several attempts with a high degree of difficulty. It was frustrating to watch Cal hit 58% from the field in the first 20 minutes only to allow a hail of long-range shots. In the second half, the Bears had more success playing zone defense while daring anyone else to shoot the basketball. The Bears shot 55% overall compared to 48% for the Terriers.

Cal featured a more balanced attack than Wofford, but freshman Darius McNeill caught fire and netted 15 points before the break. He ended with 17 on a strong 7-11 from the field including 3-7 from downtown. This is the sort of role many observers envisioned when watching early Cal practices. Let’s hope that McNeill’s confidence continues to grow.

Kingsley Okoroh struggled in the post early on, going 4-12 from the field for the game with 10 points and 8 rebounds. Marcus Lee turned the ball over seven times in the game. Both were better after halftime as Lee ended up with his obligatory double double: 17 points, 11 rebounds to go with 5 assists. Even more surprising was Don Coleman attempting only two shots in the first half after averaging 31 points over his first two games. He’d still score 16 by the final horn.

The Bears didn’t block a single shot before halftime, which admittedly was partly a product of Wofford’s focus on perimeter shooting. Two free throws by Donovan Theme-Love (no relation to Barry White) closed out the half, with Wofford leading 37-36. Theme-Love and Matthew Pegram tied for the second-most Terrier points in the half with just four apiece. I had to make sure his name was Pegram, because the television broadcast once listed him as “Pergram.”

Lee would tip in an Okoroh miss to begin the second half and retake the lead for the Bears. Sueing grabbed a subsequent steal from the hands of Theme-Love, but Magee (who else) would come right back up the floor for an extremely deep three to tie it at 40. After Lee corralled a loose ball, Okoroh stubbornly established position near the bucket and nailed a jump-hook for a 42-40 edge. Sueing tried denying Magee the ball but tipped it out of bounds.

Okoroh helped out on D, swatting an attempt from Keve Aluma after Magee passed up a shot. Lee could have put the Bears up five, but his point-blank attempt rimmed out. He was more successful on his next try while Aluma defended him. Theme-Love lost the ball out of bounds, and Lee took advantage of the ensuing possession to score in the post.

Hoover started trying to channel Magee and missed an ambitious perimeter jumper. Magee also misfired on a long but open three, although the Bears couldn’t hang onto the free ball.

The Terriers would get in early foul trouble as a team thanks in part to the Bears’ commitment to interior scoring. Cameron Jackson fouled out despite playing for 12 minutes. Coleman drew the seventh team foul on his shooting attempt with 13:36 to play. Suddenly, it was 48-40 Cal and Wofford was in the midst of a six-minute scoring drought.

An Anticevich lane violation took away Coleman’s chance to make it a double-digit edge from the charity stripe. Magee sank another three to make it 30 points for the game despite Anticevich and Coleman in the vicinity. Magee would end with 32. Despite Magee’s very noticeable output, the TV broadcast once called him “Fletcher Jones.” Where I live in Orange County, that name means one thing: a Mercedes-Benz dealership in Newport Beach.

The wackiest moment of the game was a Nick Hamilton three-point play as he tossed the ball up while falling to the floor and got it to go. Suffice to say that his other made shot lacked the same level of drama.

Once again, however, Wofford would answer with a Storm Murphy corner trey. Later, the Bears couldn’t capitalize on a bad miss by Pegram, throwing the ball away. That gave Pegram another chance to cut into the Cal advantage, and he did. Pegram got greedy and went to the hoop for a third straight possession, but Lee would deny him by pinning the ball to the glass.

Okoroh then banked one in and the Bears pulled ahead by five. Dishon Lowery was whistled for traveling, then Kingsley went back inside for two points. Magee clanked his next shot. Lee added to the Cal lead by unleashing a drop-step and went underneath to lay the ball in. It counts, and the foul!

Lowery got a kind roll to bring the deficit to eight, but Coleman took advantage of some chaos to score an opportunistic layup. Pegram would score again and the Bears led 60-52. McNeill made a transition bucket but Pegram would prove to be a thorn in the side of Cal defenders. He was the only Wofford player not named Magee to score in double digits with 13. Lee would pester Pegram when he had the ball, though, scooping in a shot off the feed from McNeill. Magee was losing his magic as the second half progressed, missing a fadeaway two-pointer.

Terrific ball movement allowed Cal to take its biggest lead on a Coleman layup at 68-55 with just over five minutes to go. Murphy then found Hoover for three, but that still only brought them within ten. The Bears wanted to milk the clock at this stage, which made a Lee traveling violation look even worse. Fortunately for Cal, Wofford made a pass seemingly to to a phantom player and the ball ended up out of bounds. With four minutes left, Cal led 69-60.

When Wofford went to a late full-court press, Coleman exploited it by slashing his way to the hoop for an easy score. By then, the Bears led 75-62. An ill-advised pass by McNeill was followed by a Hoover three, but Lee would get held under the hoop by Magee and drain his foul shots.

When Wofford got cute trying not to touch the ball (thus freezing the clock) on an inbound pass within the final minute, Coleman nearly snatched it away and forced the Terriers to call a timeout. I laughed right along with Coleman after that sequence. In the end, McNeill dribbled time away as Jones got a handshake from Wofford coach Mike Young.

There is obviously stiffer competition to come. That said, with the significant contributors other than Cole Welle in uniform this looks like a more complete team than we’ve seen for some stretches in the early going. The Bears checked off their last major box before heading to paradise. Whether their play there matches the idyllic setting is the question on everyone’s mind.