What a difference a week makes.
“Up at their place, they really got into us,” Jabari Bird acknowledged. “They brought the game to us and we didn't respond. And today, we remembered that game. It was only a week ago, and we came prepared for a battle and it showed.”
“I think at this point in the year, we came to the conclusion that we were going to play for ourselves,” said sophomore forward Ivan Rabb. “Anything that happens is on us, but we want to make sure we have fun, and I feel like we have been doing that the past two days for sure.”
It was a magnificent game for Bird and freshman Charlie Moore, who combined to score 47 points on 15-of-26 shooting. Bird matched his career-high with 26 points, including a crucial three-point play with 14 seconds remaining, which extended Cal's lead to 76-72. Moore added 21, his highest point total in three months.
“Just me attacking, I felt good,” Moore said of his performance. “My body felt great. I felt rested.”
“He’s a freshman age-wise, but his game is a lot more mature than that,” boasted Bird of his backcourt mate. “He made big plays down the stretch, getting to the rim, hitting his three ball. So I'm really proud of him right now.”
Despite leading 72-61 with just 2:17 remaining, the Bears once again struggled to close a game out. Utah went on an 11-1 run to trim Cal’s lead to a single point, and Sedrick Barefield had a chance for a game-tying three-pointer at the buzzer, but came up short.
“I don't think it was taking the foot off the gas,” said Rabb. “Utah made a lot of plays and shots. We had a few turnovers in the game. We took a few quick shots. We need to watch film and kind of learn when to slow down and when to press. We will learn from it.”
Added Bird: “Utah's a tough team. Once you get up on them, they're always going to fight back, and we knew that. We held our composure and closed the game out, and that's all you can ask for.”
The unsung hero for Cal was reserve center Kingsley Okoroh, who grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds and blocked three shots, in addition to scoring four points.
“I thought he did a tremendous job defensively,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “When (Utah) had their traditional bigs, I thought he did a great job protecting the rim.”
Rabb chipped in 12 points and six rebounds in 28 minutes, but Martin expressed a desire to see even more out of his star forward.
“I thought he was better today, but he wasn't Ivan Rabb. He was in the ballgame, but he's not the Ivan Rabb that I'm accustomed to seeing. He went 6-for-6 in free throws, and that's great. But he has a lot more in the tank, and I think it will show up (Friday).”
Cal will certainly need that Ivan Rabb to show up Friday when it faces top seed Oregon in the semifinals. The Bears are still haunted by their last game against the Ducks, which saw them blow a 16-point second half lead and lose 68-65.
“I think it took a lot out of us as a team because we felt like we had the game,” Martin conceded. “For us, we know the game plan. We understand the task at hand and what we have to do.”
“Play hard, play with energy, and play together,” added Moore. “And I think if we do that, we can beat any team.”
An upset win against Oregon could be enough to vault Cal into the NCAA Tournament. Tip-off is set for 6:00 p.m. Friday at T-Mobile Arena.
- Cal's win over Utah snaps a 24-game streak where the higher seed won at the Pac-12 Tournament.
- Jabari Bird is the first Cal player to score 20-plus points in consecutive conference tournament games since Theo Robertson in 2010.
- Grant Mullins made two 3-pointers, his 12th straight game with multiple 3s.
- Kingsley Okoroh now has 70 blocks on the season, three away from tying the Cal single-season record.
- Cal's 78 points were its most in a game since January 1 at Arizona State.
- There were 13 lead changes in the first half, but none in the second half.