With 6 minutes left in regulation, the Bears trailed by nine points, 65-56. though Cal’s defense had improved somewhat after allowing UNLV to practically score at will in the first half, the Bears had cooled down themselves. A comeback did not feel imminent.
UNLV would get another 10 possessions in regulation, and scored just 2 points. By mixing man and zone defenses, and by getting much more active and disruptive, Cal held UNLV to 1-7 shooting and forced 5 turnovers the rest of the way.
Cal would need each and every single one of those stops over those final 10 possessions just to tie the game with 33 seconds left to force overtime. But once the Bears earned an extra five minutes, they took full advantage. Staying in zone, UNLV looked befuddled. A Kareem South 3 and an Andre Kelly lay in off a nice dish from South gave the Bears a 5 point lead, and they kept scoring enough to hold off the Rebels for a hard earned win.
And so, for the 2nd straight game, Cal turned a potential loss into a win by figuring things out on defense. I don’t think that Mark Fox did anything earth shattering; finding ways to coax more effort out of your team, or switching up defenses either in response to foul trouble or ineffectiveness isn’t some sort of wild move. But it’s also something we haven’t seen in these parts, so I won’t blame you for enjoying the results to their fullest.
If you’re looking for a stat to define the game, here’s a simple one: In the first half, Cal forced exactly ONE turnover, when UNLV threw away an outlet pass following a defensive rebound. Cal’s defense wasn’t disrupting anything UNLV wanted to do, and as a result the Rebels put up a pretty absurd 1.38 points/possession mostly via simple wing drives from Donnie Tillman and Elijah Mitrou-Long off of perimeter screens, or sometimes just off of one-on-one moves.
But in the 2nd half and overtime, UNLV turned the ball over 12 times, including 5 Cal steals. The Bears were applying ball pressure and providing useful help defense on drivers (how many off-ball defenders got blocks on drivers in the 2nd half?!), and were greatly rewarded for their increased activity. Those same wings who scored at will in the first half combined for 8 turnovers after halftime. It’s entirely fitting that the game was finally clinched when Juhwan Harris-Dyson snuck down from the perimeter to poke the ball away from a driving Elijah Mitrou-Long, who was trying to score over the top of Andre Kelly.
Long term, Mark Fox is surely wondering what he needs to do to get 40 minutes of good defense out of his team. 20ish minutes of good defense (and perhaps some hotter-than-average shooting) is enough to beat the Pepperdines and UNLVs of the world, but if Cal aspires to be compete with mid-tier or better Pac-12 competition, 40 minutes of defense will be required. But for game 2 in what will likely be a multi-year rebuild, the signs are certainly positive.
Offensively, it was again the Matt-Bradley-and-friends show. Cal’s budding star put on another diverse performance, mixing in his usual 3 point shooting with an improved dribble drive game that is seeing him get more chances to score both inside and from the free throw line. His 23 points felt easy, in control, and not simply the result of going supernova hot from the floor.
Meanwhile, everybody else chipped in here and there. Kareem South had a rough day from behind the arc but did well otherwise before hitting the big 3 in OT. Joel Brown went 3-3 from downtown, though the rim and backboard were very kind on 2 of those shots. Andre Kelly didn’t have a ton of opportunities inside against an athletic front court but was efficient when he found space. Add it all up and it’s another efficient offensive performance.
- UNLV isn’t a Pac-12 team, but they probably do have mid-tier Pac-12 athleticism, and it took a while for the Bears to figure out ways to deal with that athleticism. This is probably an area where Cal might struggle defensively, and where Mark Fox’s work is most cut out for him.
- Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Joel Brown were the primary drivers for Cal’s increased ball pressure and defensive disruption in the 2nd half. If either or both can develop into average offensive contributors they could make a big impact this year, though it will be tough for various reasons - JHD because there’s still no evidence of a jump shot, and Brown simply because it’s hard to be a true freshman point guard and his shooting is also something of a question mark.
- Enough of them went down tonight to win the game, but this team seems a little bit too willing to put up long 2 point jumpers. Antecivich, Bradley, South, and Austin all hit them tonight, but they won’t all fall like that forever. More importantly, this team has enough 3 point shooters and enough solid driving guards that they can typically earn a better shot anyway.
And so the Bears are 2-0, with two wins over solid mid-major teams. This is obviously significant progress - over the last two years Cal only beat a handful of teams as good or better than Pepperdine and UNLV are likely to be this year. The Bears appear to have quickly built a new floor of performances, a floor that is unsurprisingly significantly higher than the last two years.
We’ll worry about Cal’s ceiling later in the year, once this new team full of new players gets established. For now, you’re more than welcome to come on in, take a look at the new place. Sure, the laminate flooring isn’t the most expensive thing, but it’s easy to clean up and it doesn’t scuff easy. And boy, isn’t it nice how the floor is level? You don’t think about houses without competently build foundations until your dining room table is sliding towards the wall.