Survive and advance. That's the mantra when the calendar turns to March. Cal did just that Wednesday afternoon, holding off Oregon State 67-62 in the first round of the Pac-12 Tournament at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
“We knew it would be tough,” said Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin. “It felt like we were playing with a 15-pound weight vest on our backs, and we found a way to get a win and now we can move forward.”
Coming off back-to-back ugly losses to end the regular season, the Bears needed to regain their confidence. This was certainly far from a perfect performance, but it was a win, Cal's 20th of the season.
“Coming into Vegas, everybody's zero and zero,” said senior guard Jabari Bird, who led the Bears with 20 points. “I'm just happy we got the W today and look forward to tomorrow.”
Oregon State actually jumped out to a 10-2 lead before Cal answered with a 9-0 run for its first lead of the game. The Beavers kept it close the entire contest, with Cal failing to extend its lead to double digits at any point.
The biggest sequence of the game came in the final minute when Beavers guard Kendall Manuel airballed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer, and Bird leaked out for a dunk and a foul on the other end to extend the lead to 62-57.
“That was a great play by (Kingsley Okoroh) because he threw the pass to me,” said Bird. “I ran out, he made a great play to throw to me, and I finished the play strong. Got a three-point play, so that was cool.”
Despite the victory, Cal still struggled to find its rhythm offensively. The Bears shot just 39.7 percent from the field and had as many turnovers (13) as assists.
Ivan Rabb recorded his 17th double-double of the season with 12 points and a game-high 13 rebounds, but shot just 4-for-11 from the field, and has now failed to reach 20 points in 10 straight games.
Martin says he would like to see Rabb be more aggressive: “I thought he passed up some opportunities in the second half. I thought he was two feet from the rim and he passed it out to Charlie (Moore) for a three. But that's the type of guy he is. But he has to shoot those balls.”
Stephen Domingo provided a nice spark off the bench, scoring 10 points and grabbing three rebounds in 18 minutes. The 10 points represent Domingo’s highest point total since November.
“Just was ready for the opportunity, ready to step in,” he said. “I've put work into my craft, and you have to trust your craft at this time of the year.”
Added Martin: “Not surprised, because his preparation and his energy have paid off for him in practice, and it carried over into the game.”
Charlie Moore chipped in 10 points and a team-high four assists, and Grant Mullins had six points before fouling out with 5:53 remaining.
As a team, the Bears dominated the boards, outrebounding Oregon State 40-27, including a 14-6 margin on the offensive glass.
“From the beginning of the year we've taken pride rebounding the ball on both the defensive and offensive ends of the floor,” said Rabb. “We have a lot of size down low, but we also have our guards who rebound well, like Grant (Mullins) and Jabari (Bird). We all do a good job of crashing the boards.”
Oregon State's Stephen Thompson Jr. led all scorers with 25 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including a blazing 5-for-6 from 3-point range. But the free throw line ultimately cost the Beavers, which finished just 14-for-24 (58.3 percent).
OSU had to play most of the second half without starting forward Drew Eubanks, who suffered a leg injury. He finished with six points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
Now Cal turns its attention to Thursday's quarterfinal matchup against Utah. As you undoubtedly remember, the Utes obliterated the Bears 74-44 in Salt Lake City just six days ago, but the team says it has already put that game in the rear view mirror.
“It was our worst game all season,” said Martin. “Give them credit. We didn't play well. Sweep it under the rug, watch that film in June and July.”
“It's not added motivation,” said Bird. “It's a game in March that we need to win, so that's enough motivation right there. Utah's a great team, and like I said before, we're looking forward to the challenge.”
Tip-off is set for 2:30pm at T-Mobile Arena. The winner will likely face top seed Oregon Friday night in the semifinals.