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Recap: Bears down cold-shooting Cougars to grab 1st Pac-12 win of the season

Matt Bradley scores a career high 26 to lead Cal past Washington State

NCAA Basketball: St. Mary’s at California D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

For 10 scary minutes, this game played right into Washington State’s hands. The fear pre-game was that Washington State’s new pressure defense would force the Bears into a flurry of turnovers that would stifle any attempt to build a coherent offense. And sure enough, Cal turned the ball over 10 times in that opening 25% of the game, as compared to just 5 made field goals.

Even worse, those turnovers gave opportunities for Washington State’s poor shooting offense to score in transition. That plus a few more made shots than average, and suddenly the Cougars had jumped out to a 25-11 lead. Mark Fox called timeout to regroup, and I feared that a team that was 2-8 in their last 10 games might lose focus and let the game get even further out of reach.

Instead, the Bears mounted an extended run that turned the game on its head. By halftime the Bears were up 6, and 7 minutes into the 2nd half the Bears were up 13. Add it all up and Cal went on a 33-16 run that essentially won them the game, despite a couple late runs from Wazzu that the Bears successfully held off.

What changed? Well, after those 10 early turnovers Cal ‘only’ turned the ball over another 7 times. Washington State’s defense isn’t great at forcing missed shots, so if you can get past their initial ball pressure you stand a good chance at getting to the rim and finishing. The Bears did just that, frequently. Cal finished with 32 points in the paint, with Matt Bradley and Paris Austin leading the charge of guards slashing and scoring towards the basket.

The other thing that happened was that Washington State reverted to their true shooting level. A 28%-for-the-season 3 point shooting team started 3-6, and that helped the Cougs build a lead. But that early hot streak faded, and WSU shot 4-19 the rest of the way, finishing the game at . . . 28%. Washington State may have hired an analytical coach, but his inherited roster is in a rough place to try to win games in 2019.

Still, kudos to Cal’s defense for generally doing what they needed to do - keeping WSU’s guards from getting to the basket, and forcing the Cougars to settle for the kinds of shots that they haven’t made all season long. Washington State probably doesn’t want to attempt more 3s than 2s, but that’s what they ended up with*. It wasn’t exactly the toughest defensive task, but it was still mission accomplished.

And with that mission accomplished, the Bears are one step closer to avoiding the Pac-12 basement. When your program has been cratered, you can’t really turn your nose up at any progress, no matter how incremental.

*OK, that’s misleading because it doesn’t count the 2 point attempts that got wiped away by the various fouls committed by Cal’s defense, but the point still stands - I don’t think WSU wants to be attempting 25 threes at the rate they shoot them.

Other notes

  • Better shot selection from the Bears, with 34 of their 51 shots coming either at the rim or from three. It’s what you’d hope against a WSU defense that is improved but still on the weaker side in the Pac-12.
  • Lars Thiemann has had a rough, rough start to Pac-12 play - 31 minutes, 4 points, 8 turnovers, 6 fouls. Today, two early offensive fouls took him off the court early, and I’m still not particularly convinced that he’s well suited or prepared for the role he’s being asked to fill on offense for the Bears.
  • With Juhwan Harris-Dyson and Jacobi Gordon unavailable, Mark Fox elected to give more run to his primary rotation, and only played 7 players significant minutes, with Bradley and Anticevich essentially playing the entire game (Bradley did sit for 53 seconds in the first half).
  • To a certain extent, CJ Elleby got his, with 22 points. But he had to take a lot of shots to get there and struggled to finish inside. All in all, I’ll take Cal’s defensive effort on him without hesitation.
  • There wasn’t anything particularly flashy about Joel Brown’s performance, but he stood up to Wazzu’s pressure without turning the ball over, played solid defense, and took his limited opportunities to get to the basket. For a freshman point guard who isn’t likely to have a major offensive impact this year, this kind of game is pretty ideal.
  • This got a legit reaction out of me from the couch:

And this isn’t the worst way to ice the game:

I’m all about Matt Bradley calling his own number.

Cal will face Washington on Saturday, and the game appears much more interesting today than it did earlier. That’s because Washington lost their excellent point guard Quade Green to academic ineligibility, then proceeded to turn the ball over 21 times en route to .8 points/possession in a loss to Stanford. The Huskies are still solid favorites, but the window has been opened for an unexpected home sweep opportunity.