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November 23, 2012
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ANAHEIM, Calif. -- After leading by as many as 10 points three times in the first half, the California men's basketball team was in trouble. With just under seven minutes to go, the Bears were down by nine against Drake in the opening round of the DirecTV Classic -- a tournament Cal was almost universally favored to win.
After a Jordan Clarke lay-up with 6:59 to go, Bears junior guard Justin Cobbs took over. Cobbs drove through the heart of the lane on the other side of the floor, drawing a hack from guard Gary Ricks, Jr.. Cobbs proceeded to hit both of his free throws, and from that point on, was a dominant, physical, fearless force for the Bears, scoring eight of Cal's final 17 points, dishing out two assists and pulling down one board, as the Bears squeaked out a 73-70 victory in the first round of the DirecTV Classic, with four of his game-high 21 points coming in the final 1:12.
"We had our hands full. We were in trouble," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "Toward the end of the game, we probably played our most aggressive, best defense that we've played at any time."
Cobbs scored 11 of his 21 points from the charity stripe, going 11-for-13 on the evening.
"I wouldn't say it was the best free-throw game I've had. At the same time, there were some big free throws late in the game, down by one," Cobbs said. "You knock down both of them, you make it a game. They had to make a three to tie it, so they were big free throws."
Junior wing Allen Crabbe finished with 15 points and seven rebounds -- tied for the team-high with Robert Thurman and true freshman Tyrone Wallace.
[RELATED: First Game Ball Goes to Wallace ]
Crabbe -- who came into the game as the national scoring leader with 26.7 points per game -- shot just 1-of-4 from the field in the first half, and couldn't find a seam to create his own shots.
"Obviously we need Al to be a big part of our offense, and they did a great job on him," Montgomery said. "We've got to find other ways to get other people involved to make them pay for that."
Those other options turned out to be Wallace and Cobbs, who combined for 14 first-half points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field, as Cobbs went 5-for-7 from the free-throw line.
Behind those two, the Bears sprinted out to a commanding 10-point lead on the cold-shooting Bulldogs (2-2) midway through the first half. Soon enough, though, the Bears (4-0) began to feel the consequences of two early fouls from center Richard Solomon, the physicality of Drake's big men and the loss -- two minutes before the game -- of shooting guard Ricky Kreklow, who injured his surgically-repaired foot during warm-ups and, Montgomery said, is unlikely to return this weekend.
"We had a couple things that we hadn't really planned on," Montgomery said. "Ricky hurt his foot before the game, same foot that was hurt before, and that was like a two-minute notice that he wasn't going to be able to play, and then Richard Solomon gets two fouls in the first three minutes or so of the game, so we have two of our top players that are out for an appreciable time, and then Al gets a second and then he's out for a period of time."
On the back of Solomon's two infractions, the Cal post game was uneven, to say the least, on Thursday night. Three Bears bigs combined to shoot just 9-for-23 from the floor, and though Cal out-rebounded the Bulldogs 40-26, the defensive effort was, Montgomery said, lacking.
"I didn't think defensively they were very good," Montgomery said of his big men. "They went down to their post, and we talked about not letting them get middle, and they were able to get there. Really, the other kid, Clarke, did a good job. He's an odd sort of a player for a big. He puts it on the floor pretty well, had 10 rebounds."
Drake had come out ice-cold -- hitting just 4-of-11 from the field to start the game -- but finally got its shooting touch down midway through the first half, finishing the stanza shooing 10-for-18 from the field, including five of its last 10 before the half. The Bears, in contrast, floundered, hitting two of their final 10 shots of the first half, after starting 11-for-19.
"I liked their spacing; they seemed to have a real good sense of where people are, and where to find people once you try to help on the defense," Montgomery said.
Following a 10-2 run by Cal from 15:08 to 10:21 in the first half, the Bulldogs went on a 15-5 run of their own, finally tying things up at 24 with 4:20 left on a free throw by Drake's 6-foot-11 big man Seth VanDeest, who owned the inside on both ends on the floor against the Bears' big men, shooting 5-of-7 with four boards and four assists on the night.
"Drake was very physical," Montgomery said. "They were bumping us on cuts and moving on screens. It was like new, so we had to adjust to that, and we initially didn't adjust very well. Finally, we got used to it, but if we figure out how hard we have to play to be good."
Less than five minutes into the second half, Cal saw a 44-40 lead turn into a 44-43 margin thanks to a free throw make by Richard Carter and a layup by Ben Simons. Solomon - who looked outmatched against VanDeest - then went sprawling to the floor in the low block, and was called for a foul. After he got up, both he and the Bears bench were called for technical fouls, allowing Simons to hit four straight free throws.
"I think there was some frustration with a lot of stuff going on, out there," Montgomery said. "Obviously, it boiled over. I just throught that there was a lot of stuff that was being let go, and it was not to our advantage. We were getting bumped and we were getting frustrated with it. Justin's been known to talk to an opponent every now and again, so we had to make sure that we kept things in tow. The one guy was going to do whatever and let you know who was in charge. They knew. It was a tough spot. Four free throws plus the ball, that's a tough situation. I wish I hadn't gotten involved with the thing."
The game was back-and-forth for much of the second half, with neither team leading by more than four for the first seven minutes. But after the pair of technicals, the Bulldogs began to pull away, hitting 4-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from beyond the three-point line, while going 4-for-6 from the charity stripe.
But, over the final seven minutes, Cal clamped down. Drake shot just 3-of-12 from the field in the home stretch, missing on three three-pointers and hitting just two of six from the free-throw line.
"We just got together towards the end and played harder than we have this year," Montgomery said.
Simons -- who finished the night tied for the team-high with 13 points -- was 0-for-5 from the field over that span, missing on two three-pointers.
"There were key people we took out. Allen probably played defense like I've never seen him on a very good player in Simons, where they couldn't get him the ball, just by playing hard," Montgomery said. "Brandon [Smith] kept people in front of him. Defensively, we were able to get some stops, which is what we needed to do. We kept them off the foul line by moving our feet and keeping them in front of us and made some key plays, and once we got a little momentum, I think it made a huge difference."
With the Bulldogs down for the count, the Bears went on a 14-2 run, capped by a three-pointer from Crabbe. Off the dish from Cobbs, Crabbe drove on Simons from the right wing into the lane, then finished at the rim to put Cal up by three with 3:37 to go.
"Drake prepared for us well," Cobbs said. "They knew what we were doing. They helped on screens to take Allen away and jumped to the ball, which makes it difficult. We're used to usually being able to get those shots. Down the stretch, we played defense. Allen took away one of their great shooters and Brandon was pressuring the ball. That was big on the defensive end, and offensively, defense breeds offense, so that's how we were able to get on the break and get lay-ups and get shots we're usually used to getting and they were going down."
The Bears will now play Georgia Tech on Friday at 9 p.m. Pacific, a game which will be shown on ESPN2. The Yellow Jackets downed former Cal head coach Ben Braun's Rice squad 54-36 in the game immediately preceding the Bears-Bulldogs bout.
Georgia Tech held the Owls to 23 percent shooting and outrebounded them 50 to 26, including 15 off the offensive glass -- resulting in 12 second-chance points. The 3-0 Yellow Jackets were led on Thursday by Marcus Georges-Hunt, who had 11 points and nine rebounds.