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Cal basketball using Pac-12 Tournament to rediscover their confidence

Cal will face Oregon in semifinal after beating Utah 78-75

California v Utah Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Losing five of the last six regular season games couldn’t have felt good for anyone associated with the Cal basketball program. That seemed particularly true because the only victory in that stretch came in the cozy confines of Haas Pavilion against woeful Oregon State. Sure, nobody could blame the Bears for falling in Tucson. Despite its heartbreaking finish, the Oregon game featured a high level of execution over most of its 40 minutes.

Nevertheless, it felt like Cal left victories on the table in losing to Stanford and Colorado even if they were road matchups. A defeat at Utah seemed more forgivable on its face, but not when it transpired in the fashion that led up to the lopsided final tally of 74-44. Suffice it to say that the Bears had unfinished business heading into the Pac-12 Tournament. Cal has taken care of it so far, improving its record to 21-11 in the process.

The Bears didn’t exactly flip a switch in hanging onto Wednesday’s 67-62 win over the Beavers. After the final buzzer, Cuonzo Martin spoke of a sense of relief that his team avoided the upset. There also had to be the simultaneous realization that better all-around play would be required to win this season’s rubber match against the Utes.

It wasn’t a double overtime special, but this game wouldn’t have been Cal vs. Utah without a bizarre late sequence. With the shot clock turned off and Cal leading 73-72, Jabari Bird dribbled up the court expecting a foul from Gabe Bealer. As he put it: “Yeah, I was expecting him to foul, so when he didn't, I just tried to make a play going toward the rim.” The result was inspired chaos. Instead of waiting for a foul that had to come eventually and simply hitting two free throws, Bird went up with a shot. As Cal fans everywhere winced, the ball found net and Tyler Rawson was whistled for a foul that turned into a third point for the Bears. After some nervous moments, Sam Singer found himself spiking a Sedrick Barefield desperation heave and the Bears came away with a 78-75 win.

Bird’s celebration was a reflection of the major confidence he possessed throughout. He never hesitated to initiate offense, resulting in 26 points and a 4-6 performance behind the arc. Even when he missed an initial shot near the end of the first half, he had the presence of mind to hang around for the put-back. With a minute left in the half, Bird drove to the hoop for a tidy three-point play. Utah would rally to tie the game at 30 as the teams headed to their respective locker rooms, but Bird had demonstrated that he wasn’t backing down. As he made big shots down the stretch and acted like he had been there before, Bird’s swagger symbolized Cal’s quest to keep winning.

Utah’s offense hummed along to the tune of 52% on field goals and 41% on threes. David Collette is a shifty customer around the basket and had 11 points despite foul trouble. Kyle Kuzma went 9-14 and poured in 23 while showing touch from long range that bordered on ridiculous. Lorenzo Bonam complemented his 12-point game by tacking on 6 assists. Barefield nailed a pair of threes and led the bench with 13.

Cal was 44% from the field but made up the difference at the free throw line by sinking an impressive 22-27 (82%) compared to 11 Utah attempts. The Bears weren’t afraid to hammer away inside and drew plenty of fouls against the increasingly frustrated Utes. Ivan Rabb’s 3-10 shooting was far from dominant, but the big man reached 12 points with a perfect 6-6 effort from the stripe. Kingsley Okoroh played to his strengths in grabbing 10 rebounds and three blocks. Grant Mullins didn’t catch fire, but he drained two three-pointers and his jumper with 10:31 left in the game helped the Bears keep their momentum.

It was never going to be easy, but Cal rolled with the punches. Eight minutes in, Rabb bobbled the ball but righted the ship as he gathered it in and sank an elbow jumper for a 15-13 Bears advantage. Cal led 63-54 with 5:24 remaining, but it was a nailbiter to the end. A couple of careless plays late, including a rushed shot from Charlie Moore when Cal should have wound down the clock, made things interesting. According to Martin: “I was looking to get the ball to Ivan” instead.

Moore showed off some eye-popping finishing ability en route to 21 points. For instance, he went airborne before contorting himself around the hoop for a second half lay-in. Even on what appeared to be a desperation three-point attempt, he drew his defender in the air and banked the shot home. The fear of another easy Moore hoop started to bait multiple defenders, which allowed him to kick out to Bird for an open three of his own.

Are Cal’s NCAA Tournament hopes riding on Friday’s matchup (6 PM PT on Pac-12 Networks) with the 28-4 Oregon Ducks? Ken Pomeroy gives the Bears a 26% chance to win. Martin was adamant in his disagreement with the very premise: “Well, if you ask me, I think we've done enough when you're talking about a league that has three top, maybe five or six teams in the have 21 wins in the Pac-12.” The head coach also addressed the prior two meetings: “We lost a tough one at home to them. We didn't play as well at their place.”

It’s not easy matching up a team that ranks 23rd nationwide in adjusted offensive efficiency and 20th in the corresponding defensive category. Despite Oregon’s low free throw rate and inferiority compared to Cal in rebounding, the Ducks can just plain shoot the ball with an effective field goal percentage of 56% which ranks 14th.

The Bears lost 86-63 on January 19 and 68-65 on February 22, but this team is feeling good about itself right now. Dillon Brooks is Oregon’s biggest threat, but Cal must be prepared for the Chris Boucher who imposed his will on the second meeting. Martin sounded focused on the team’s journey rather than the destination: “For us, at least for me, it doesn't come down to tomorrow. My job is to coach the game tomorrow, and then whatever happens after that happens. But I'm not consumed with all the other stuff.”