LOS ANGELES- Pundits may say the Pacific-10 Conference is in a down year, but Jerome Randle sees otherwise.
"Sure we lose a bunch of guys every year to the NBA Draft, but the conference is still very competitive," the senior point guard said.
The Cal basketball team is showing a clear distinction between itself and the rest of the Pac-10 through two games this week at Staples Center. The latest example came Friday night with a convincing 85-72 win over undermanned UCLA in the semifinals of the Pac-10 Conference Tournament.
The Bears advance to Saturday's 3 p.m. championship game, facing the winner of the other semifinal between Stanford and Washington.
The jovial nature of Cal's post-game press conference underscored a difficult first half for the Bears. The Bruins jumped out to a 20-10 lead early, and led 39-35 at halftime.
The Bears' scintillating shooting in the second half helped give Cal a comfortable winning margin. The Bears shot 17-of-24 (70.8%) in the second half, plenty good enough to distance the Bears from UCLA.
Randle headlined four Cal players who scored in double-figures, netting 24 points, followed by Theo Robertson (20), Patrick Christopher (16) and Jamal Boykin (10).
By evening's end, Randle had emerged as the No. 1 scorer in Bears history. His 1,790 points surpasses Sean Lampley's 1,776. Randle, the Pac-10 Player of the Year, said Lampley has been calling him about overtaking the scoring mark.
"Sean Lampley can stop biting his nails because it's over with," Randle said.
Randle accomplished the feat with another strong shooting performance, including 7-of-11 shooting overall and 9-of-9 from the free throw line. He also had six assists and two steals.
"Shoot enough, you're going to score eventually," a wry Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "I don't know that I've ever really been around a better shooter than Jerome. He's got great range and he's really been good the last half of this season, the best he's ever been in terms of trying to do the things we're asking him to do, as far as running the club and yet still maintaining the fact that he's going to be a scorer."
In the second half, Cal focused heavily on UCLA guard Michael Roll, who scored 16 point first-half points, and took him out of his rhythm on offensive.
The Bruins tried going to fellow senior Nikola Dragovic but he had little going for him in a 3-for-12 shooting performance. Dragovic buried a three-pointer for a 44-42 advantage, but Christopher responded with a three-pointer of his own and Cal never trailed again. Randle's jumper made it 58-48 with 9:50 remaining.
This year's UCLA squad may not have had the star power of previous Bruin squads. What they did have is an understanding of March basketball. UCLA, playing in front of a blue-tinged crowd, pushed Cal in the first half with efficient ball movement and the hot hand of Roll.
Roll's 16 first-half points came on 6-of-10 shooting overall and 3-of-5 from three-point range. His final total of 27 points marked a career-high in his final game in a UCLA uniform. His career 205 three-pointers tied him with Arron Afflalo.
"I don't really care about the career-high or anything like that," Roll said. "It is just unfortunate that we lost."
The Bruins built their early 20-10 lead off a 6-0 spurt made up of consecutive three-point plays by Tyler Honeycutt and Roll.
"We knew they would be fired up," Montgomery said. "This was their opportunity to go to the NCAA Tournament and frankly they played a little harder than we did to start."
Cal stayed close, and cut the deficit to one, 25-24, with 7:44 left on a lay-up by Jorge Gutierrez. UCLA's Reeves Nelson followed with a lay-up, and the Bruins stayed ahead the rest of the first half. UCLA expanded the lead to 39-30 on a Roll three-pointer, but two free throws by Robertson and a Randle three-pointer cut it to 39-35 by halftime.
A different Cal team emerged in the second half with the Bears outscoring the Bruins 50-33 and now standing poised to take home the conference tournament crown along with the regular season title.
"We knew what we were going up against and we wanted to come in and try to be aggressive," Randle said. "Like coach said, they came in and played really hard in the beginning. We didn't want to back down so we came out in the second half and threw the first punch."