BERKELEY, CA- Maybe it's time to re-evaluate the expectations for Cal Basketball this season.
Senior forward Harper Kamp scored a career-high 25 points as the Golden Bears demolished defending Mountain West Conference champions New Mexico 89-64; avenging their loss at the Pit a year ago.
Cal came running out the gate early, using strong defensive play to set up transition baskets. Jorge Gutierrez intercepted a Kendall Williams pass at mid-court and slammed it home on the other end for the game's first points. Soon after, Allen Crabbe scored in transition on a lay-up following a Markhuri Sanders-Frison steal.
"I thought the vets set the tone," said coach Mike Montgomery. "I thought that Jorge and Markuri set the tone for how we wanted to play and what was going on out there. I was really pleased with our defensive effort almost across the board."
The Golden Bears continued to fly midway through the half with a mix of outside shooting, rebounds and defense. Harper Kamp converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 12:40 left in the half to give Cal a 20-8 lead, they're largest of the first half.
New Mexico crawled back into the game shortly after that, hitting six three-pointers in the first half. Jamal Fenton hit a three-pointer to tie the game before Brandon Smith found Richard Solomon for an easy dunk as time expired and the Bears carried a 38-36 advantage into the locker room.
That was the closest it would be the rest of the night, as Cal would score 51 points in the second half while holding the Lobos to 29.2% from the field. Gary Franklin hit trio of three-pointers to help extend the Golden Bear lead to double digits with 13:08 remaining in the game. Franklin would finish with 16 points, the most by a Cal freshman since Kamp also dropped 16 on Jackson State in 2007.
"I thought that the shots that he made were the shots that he should be taking," said Montgomery of Franklin. "He knows he's a little bit streaky and when he makes a couple he's liable to heat check a little bit and see if he can make another one. I'm okay with that as long as he's doing the other stuff in terms of defending, which he work at it. He worked it defending, he put a lot of energy into it and he made some nice passes, which I'm also interested in. I was pleased, he's a terrific kid."
Solomon, Franklin and Crabbe all showed great defensive tenacity throughout the night, something that was easily recognized by both teammates and coach Montgomery.
"I think they all brought a good energy tonight," said Kamp of the frosh trio. "In the locker room and in warm ups and stuff, I think the freshmen were as hyped as they have been all year. That gave me a lot of energy tonight. Me and Markuri, we're usually the guys trying to pump everybody up and it was the other way around tonight."
"I think they're listening, and that's encouraging. I think they're trying to figure out what I'm talking about," said Montgomery. "I like the way we managed the game tonight, in terms of holding guys accountable for not doing what we've asked them to do. There is an expectation in terms of how you can play and what I said to them was 'Look, do the best you can. We're not asking any more than that, but that means mentally too."
Kamp continued to dominate throughout the second half, scoring the bulk of Cal's points was they extending their lead beyond 20 points in the final ten minutes. Four of Harper's six board were on the offensive side and he hit his first three-pointer since his freshman season with 6:52 remaining to put Cal up 77-54.
Cal ran the floor all night, which clearly took a toll on the Lobos. New Mexico was sluggish on defense in the second half, committing 16 total fouls. Cal's defense on the other hand forced 18 turnovers, which often created fast and easy buckets on the other end.
"Instead of just getting stops, we focus on getting stops and being able to push the ball in transition and get a good look, hopefully scoring, but getting a good shot after we get stops," said Kamp. "It helps our mentality transitioning the offensive side."
The Golden Bears, picked to finish seventh in the conference, were thought of to be the underdogs in what turned out to be a blowout victory. Kamp admits that the lack of respect for the defending Pac-10 is a motivator.
"Personally I think sometimes that fuels me, you know, people doubting us," said Kamp. "I look around and I don't doubt any of my teammates on any single possession or play. You just have to go out there and help each other and believe in each other."
But the real reason to believe that this Cal team is for real is that improvement is everywhere on this team, perhaps nowhere more so than Brandon Smith. Smith ran the offense with seven assists to go with his nine points, most of which coming on aggressive moves to the basket.
"My teammates showed me a lot about they're character tonight and I'm excited," Kamp said after the game Saturday. "I think it's the first step."