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Cal basketball takes a step toward normalcy, winning 83-63 over Northridge

Darius McNeill puts on a shooting clinic, scores 22

NCAA Basketball: Maui Invitational-VCU at California
Darius McNeill was feeling it at Haas
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s trip to Maui didn't give Cal men’s basketball fans much for which to be thankful. The Golden Bear offense was clicking during the first half against vaunted Wichita State, but not much else went right in paradise. Fortunately, the Bears got back to some good habits on Tuesday night as they returned home against Cal State Northridge. While the Matadors are now a 1-5 team and ranked outside the top 300 Division I squads according to Ken Pomeroy, it’s hard to take any opponent for granted after a loss to Division II Chaminade. Wyking Jones promised changes after facing the Silverswords, but he didn’t shake up the rotation too radically. He was able to deploy more players thanks to the team’s early dominance, though. The Bears are now 3-4 thanks to an 83-63 victory in which they shot 52% from the floor.

Juhwan Harris-Dyson, who has played sparingly while recovering from an illness, got the start alongside Darius McNeill. McNeill was the story of the game, hitting five three-pointers in the first half alone. He waited for good opportunities and showed off a silky smooth release all night. Ten Cal players, including Deschon Winston, Grant Anticevich, and Nick Hamilton, had points in the first 20 minutes.

In the early going, Marcus Lee had the presence of mind to kick the ball out to McNeill, who naturally did not miss. A missed deep three by Micheal Warren seemed like a good early omen. Two minutes later, McNeill had all eight Cal points after an explosive drive to the hoop. When the Bears forced a Matador 30 second violation, the Cal bench exploded in applause. Lee would grab his own rebound to make it 10-2 Cal, and the home team never really looked back. In the first nine minutes, McNeill was 4-4 on threes and 6-6 from the field, good for 16 immedate points. Talk about taking the fight to the Matadors. As Walt “Clyde” Frazier would say, McNeill was dishing and swishing, even setting Lee up for a hoop and the foul. He ended with 22 points but was on pace for much more.

Harris-Dyson actually hails from Northridge, so it was fitting that he rose to the occasion. His final line included 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. However, perhaps the most impressive play of the half went to Roman Davis, who converted a pass from McNeill for a wild basket. Kingsley Okoroh, who started the play, was visibly excited when Davis was able to hit.

The Bears would use an 11-0 run to open up a 26-11 advantage. They also stifled CSUN in part due to a combined 11 blocked shots. When Lee (4 blocks) and Okoroh (6 rejections in only 16 minutes) can stay on the floor, they generally disrupt the opposition. That’s true even though Okoroh technically came off the bench in this one. King even nabbed a steal, making him the only Cal player other than Justice Sueing to get one. Lee returned to offensive form with 14 points, as well.

A rare easy hoop for Northridge’s Tavrion Dawson had an answer in yet another McNeill make from behind the arc. At one point, the Matadors suffered through a scoring drought of over four minutes. That had head coach Reggie Theus wincing and probably wishing he were still doing commentary for the NBA Live video games. Theus wasn’t any happier when his son Reggie Theus, Jr. missed badly with a jumper. He’d finish with 5 points on 1-6 shooting. Terrell Gomez was the main bright spot for the visiting team, going 9-14 from the field and ending with 20 points. Lyrik Shreiner is usually a key player for CSUN, but on this night he was singing a different tune. Meanwhile, Cal built a 48-30 lead at the half thanks to plays like Sueing’s reverse layup against befuddled defender Mahamadou Kaba-Camara.

Cal went into cruise control in the early portion of the second half. Don Coleman scored 15 points but also made a couple of creative passing plays to set up teammates like Sueing. Harris-Dyson slammed one home. Okoroh got a baby hook to go. Later, Coleman and Northridge’s Zeno Lake got into a minor altercation during a 12-0 Matador run, but ultimately nothing came of it and the ensuing referee review seemed unnecessary. Some sloppy play by Cal and a couple of made threes for Northridge cut the Golden Bear lead to 69-54 with 7:02 to go, but that’s as close as it would get from there on out. Harris-Dyson allowed Lee to provide an exclamation point as he barely had to jump for an alley-oop.

The Bears grabbed a win and fans watching on television enjoyed an appearance from Bill Walton. The affable Walton discussed Tom Petty’s career and the walk past Strawberry Creek on his way to the arena, among other topics. I also learned that comedian Cheech Marin used to attend CSUN. Walton and Roxy Bernstein also got to speak with the man of the hour.

Hopefully the Bears are laying the groundwork for some upset victories on their home floor when Pac-12 play comes around. The competition is about to get a lot sterner against a local rival in the Saint Mary’s Gaels, who will be anxious to get back on the right track after a couple of unexpected defeats.