After last week's ten point loss to Oregon, I begrudgingly said that this hoops season had officially become a wash. Unfortunately, for my prognostication skills, the Pac-10 is doing everything possible to make me look like a ranting fool. That is because Cal, which had won 3 out of its last 4 games and was ranked first in the conference, blew a 13-point first half lead to a USC bunch that had lost its past two contests in its 66-63 loss to the Trojans.
Yes, Cal, a team that once held sole possession of first place in the Pac-10, is now 6-4 and suddenly in a four tie for first (note: that includes UCLA, which is 11-11 on the season). And they have nobody to blame but themselves. In the first half, the Golden Bears held a rather convincing 30-17 lead, but instead of stepping on the accelerate, the eased up and watched USC go on a 25-0 run. The Bears, which now saw a 12-point deficit on the scoreboard were dumbfounded. From ESPN's Andy Katz:
Being on the bad side of a 25-0 run and seeing a 30-17 lead turn into a 12-point deficit is no way to build street cred with the committee, let alone the coaches or national media that vote in polls (albeit popularity contests).
Cal's poor execution at times, which is somewhat astounding for a Mike Montgomery-coached team, continues to be troubling. The Bears had the Trojans down 13 with a chance to step on their throat. But the Bears wilted during a critical stretch and found out that USC is a wee bit tougher.
California let a chance to win at Arizona last Sunday escape too as Nic Wise made the money shot to beat the Bears in the final stanza. That's two games in a row where Cal should have won and didn't. At some point the team that was predicted to win the league, nicely position in the top 25, has to actually win a key game, right?
"We're getting to the point where we've got to say that's enough,'' Christopher said. "We're missing the opportunities to be the team that we need to be.''
Cal flat out choked. There really isn't much debate there. They had a double-digit lead toward the end of the first half, and they let a pesky USC team back in the game. If you consider yourself a potential candidate for an NCAA at-large birth than these are the games you must close.
But Cal didn't slam the door shut, and to USC's credit, they took advantage of that opportunity. The Bears had 13 turnovers and shot just 38% from the field against a USC defense, which stepped up at all the right times. Outside of point guard Jerome Randle, who scored 29 points to lead the Bears, Cal had just one other players finish with double-figures - Patrick Christopher had 11 points.
Conversely, USC, which still struggled with the turnover bug as evident by 18 give aways, did a lot of the right things over the stretch run. They weren't particularly consistent, but when it mattered most, they stepped up. And for a team that has been struggling as of late (5 losses since the sanctions were announced), that's all you can really ask for.
On the offensive end, 'SC received major scoring relief from a fairly large group. Four players finished in double figures - Dwight Lewis (13 points), Mike Gerrity (12 points), Alex Stepheson (10 points), and Nikola Vucevic (10 points). That type of scoring balance was nowhere to be seen for Cal, as Randle and Christopher were the lone scoring threats.
There is no question that Cal gave this one away, but 'SC stepped in a big way during the second half on both ends of the court. For a team that looked ready to quit last Saturday at Oregon, this was a big step. It wasn't their finest game in terms of execution and quality of play, but in regards to the effort, they certainly deserve a ton of credit for leaving this one with a three-point victory in hand. When it comes to depth and overall talent, most fans understand this Trojan bunch is a little short-sided. But when the effort and focus is there, they are a tough bunch to beat, especially in a Pac-10 that is hard-pressed to get even two teams in the Big Dance this March.