Bears show their youth against No. 14 Aztecs

BERKELEY-With five true freshmen on the roster, this edition of the Cal basketball team was bound to take its lumps sooner or later. At halftime, down by just two, it looked as though the Bears may just escape with a loss, but at least one which was hard-fought and close. 20 minutes later, and it was lump city, as the final buzzer sounded on a 77-57 romp by No. 14 San Diego State.
"They made big shots, tough shots, late-clock shots and just didn't seem to be concerned at all that we were even there," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery. "That was a little bit not what we expected. We out-rebounded them by 10, and everything in our scouting report and what we were led to believe was that the offense starts for them when they shoot it, because that's when they go to the offensive glass."
The Aztecs capped off an historic start to their season, winning their first nine contests for the first time in the 90-year history of the program, thanks in large part to super sophomore Kawhi Leonard, who drew a half dozen NBA scouts to Haas Pavilion on Wednesday night and didn't disappoint, scoring 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, going 3-of-6 from three-point range. He also pulled down three boards, had two assists, two blocks and two steals, to boot.
"San Diego State is good," Montgomery said. "They have some guys. Ironically, we had really focused on their three bigs in terms of Malcolm Thomas, Billy White and Kawhi Leonard, as far as block offs, rebounding and offensive rebounds, and then it turns out D.J. Gay, Leonard and James Rahon were the guys that really hurt us."
Rahon shot 5-of-6 from the field, bolstered by a 3-of-4 day beyond the arc, and tallied 11 points in a first half in which the Bears held San Diego State to 11-of-36 shooting while pulling down 29 of their 38 boards on the night.
"Rahon's 11 first-half points really hurt us," Montgomery said. "We were playing really good defense in the first half. We were engaged, we were doing a great job, our bigs were defending, but they kicked it out three times for wide-open threes. I think it was just lost vision."
Leonard was held to just seven points in the first half, largely defended quite well by true freshman Allen Crabbe, who held the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward to just 3-of-7 shooting and 1-of-3 from beyond the arc.
"I would guess that most of these guys have never guarded guys like this," Montgomery said of his youngsters. "They've never been asked to guard another team's best player. Leonard's a pro. So you guard a pro. In Crabbe's case, he's a freshman guarding a pro, and he's a go-to guy, so Allen, I thought, worked really hard."
In fact, the entire Cal lineup played some pretty stout defense in the first half, holding one of the best teams on the West Coast to just 28 points.
As time wound down in the half, junior point guard Jorge Gutierrez pulled up to shoot a wild three at the top of the arc, but was fouled by Medhi Cheriet and sent sprawling to the floor. A bit exaggerated, but it got the job done. Gutierrez proceeded to nail all three of his free throws to cut San Diego State's five-point lead to just two going into the break.
"I think it was big. I knew he was going to foul me, and I had to make a smart play," Gutierrez said. "It ended up being a big play for us, going into the locker room, down by two, there was a lot of momentum for us. We were working hard on both defense and offense."
The first five minutes of the second period were just as thrilling, with both teams trading one-point leads back and forth. With 13:39 to go, the Bears were down by just one thanks to a clutch lay-up by Harper Kamp, and had been playing hard on both ends of the floor.
"I think we just kind of lost a sense, offensively, of what we needed to do," Kamp said, of how his team went from down by one to the final 20-point deficit. "I think we stopped helping each other on offense. We were doing a great job of helping each other defensively, playing together. Offensively, we've just got to continue through the whole game to set screens and get each other open. That has to be there all the time."
As the second half progressed, the Aztecs exposed the Bears' depth issues, capitalizing on the fact that Cal got just six points off the bench behind leading scorers Gutierrez (19 points), Kamp (18) and Markhuri Sanders-Frison (8).
"We were having a hard time coming off the bench," Montgomery said. "Really, Harper, Markhuri and Jorge have been really good, and we've had a hard time when Jorge's been out. He had two fouls in the first half and I put him back in with two and we got back in the game, protected the two, but he plays so hard that he gets tired, and when he gets tired, he's liable to get a foul. I need to find some guys off the bench that can give us similar-type play and we don't always get that."
When Gutierrez came off the floor with 11:11 left to play and the Aztecs up by nine, San Diego State went on a 5-0 run to go up by 14 and never looked back.
"I think one of the things we talked bout was turning the ball over and it led to a lot of transition baskets for them," Kamp said. "They were getting transition buckets and we're not going to be back in defensive position, so we weren't able to defend them."
As the half wore on, Cal had an increasingly difficult time containing Leonard, who shot 5-of-7 from the floor and 2-of-4 from three-point land after the break to score 13 of his 20 points.
"Some of the shots that he made, I mean, he's really good; he's clearly one of the best players on the West Coast," Montgomery said. "One time, we couldn't have been in better position defensively, and he dropped it down because the guy was there defensively and still made it. I don't know what you can do. Another time, he was deep, the clock was running out, and then boom, boom, he gets a rhythm and rises up and makes it. I don't know what you can do. I guess the theory would be that a good player is ultimately going to get it going. Most of the time, just because of length, we had Allen Crabbe on him, and I thought Allen really tried and did a good job, because Allen's got some length in his arms. He did a pretty good job, but I think he wore Allen down after a while. He had some inside stuff, but it wasn't like he was getting uncontested shots. He was just able to make shots."
The usually-sharp-shooting Crabbe was held to just 2-of-8 shooting and 0-for-3 from three-point range for five points after clearly being worn down on both ends by the Aztecs' star.
"He did a good job (defensively), but ultimately, the kid got away from him a little bit," Montgomery said. "They put length on him. He was also being guarded by Leonard, and he's 6-7 with very long arms and Al's 6-5. Allen's going to get better at creating opportunities for himself, but right now, we've got to use the offense to help him get shots. The fact that they were able to feel that they could guard our inside people with their inside people one-on-one, they were able to stay at home, and that was pretty tough."
Part of the Bears' most glaring weaknesses on Wednesday night was their historically-bad night from three-point range. Cal failed to make a single three-point shot in nine attempts.
"They got a feel for what we were going to do and what we could do," Montgomery said. "They felt comfortable defending us by themselves at the post, and we had some success there, but they stayed at home on the perimeter guys, they used their length, they got up into us and got some blocks, some deflections. I just don't think that they felt threatened by what we were able to do, in terms of going by them. They got some confidence out of that. Some of the shots that Leonard made and Gay made, late-clock, over the defense from deep, that's just good plays."
Down low, though, Cal was strong, getting 30 points combined from the Bears big men, with Kamp's 18 topping the trio of himself, freshman Richard Solomon and Sanders-Frison. The problems, however, arose on defense, with Sanders-Frison still hobbled by plantar fasciitis in both feet and San Diego State's superior positioning around the perimeter, shooting 45.5% (10-for-22) from beyond the arc.
"I thought we did a pretty good job in the post, but we couldn't help," Montgomery said. "They did a good job of spacing shooters, and as well as they were shooting the ball, we couldn't bring a second guy down in the post so we had to play the post guys one-on-one. That's not desirable, to let those guys dribble like that. Could we have monstered? Probably, but a lot of times they had Rahon, Gay and Leonard out there, so you were kind of picking your poison. That's what makes good basketball teams: the ability to make you pay for when you try to make an adjustment.
"We did fire the on-ball screens, got caught on the on-ball screens quite a bit, and when they rejected the screen, they came back and we got caught. We made an adjustment, tried to fire the on-ball screens and got a turnover or two, but I'm guessing that Gay is probably good enough that he would have made an adjustment to that, had we continued to do that, and he would have found an open guy."
Gutierrez said that the team isn't so much disappointed at the result, but understands that this is, above all, a learning experience for such a young bunch.
"It's just a loss, and we've got to move on and learn from it, and think about next game," he said. "I think they're as big as Notre Dame and I think they were more athletic than anybody we'd played, and they had a different style of play."
Kamp said that the Aztecs' style was markedly different from the teams that the Bears have played thus far this season, including the field in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
"If you look at the last two games we played there, especially against Notre Dame, that team just wanted to slow down the game and take care of the ball and just get good possessions, but this team tried to get out in transition and speed the game up a little more. That's one of their advantages: they have great athletes."
That athleticism caused Cal to turn the ball over a staggering 18 times-10 more than the Bears were able to force from the Aztecs. San Diego State was able to block seven shots and swipe six steals, while Cal registered four steals and zero blocks. That caused some Bears to sacrifice shot selection for just getting a shot off before they were abused by San Diego State defenders.
"They were doing a great job of pressuring us and we were standing around a little too much, not working to get open," Kamp said. "I was having a hard time, or maybe doing a poor job of helping the guards get open and helping the team execute. That's one of the things that I think I can do better."
While a 20-point home loss hurts-it breaks Cal's streak of 22 straight nonconference wins in Haas Pavilion-it is nonetheless necessary for some of the younger members of the team to learn just how costly some mistakes can be. The freshman class as a whole shot 2-for-14 for six total points.
"They have to learn from it," Kamp said. "I think that their effort is always there, which I'm proud to play with guys like that, who continue to play hard even if they struggle at times. They'll definitely learn from it. No doubt about that."
Odds and Ends
• Montgomery was clearly incensed at several points during the game with some of his team's lapses on defense. On one particular play with 9:38 left in the second half, Kamp bricked a three-point attempt after a deft shot-fake. The rebound was grabbed by Chase Tapley, who fired an outlet pass to White. With true freshman Emerson Murray caught napping, White hammered down a dunk, causing the third-year Cal skipper to become quite animated on the sidelines.
"I don't really get that. It's kind of basic basketball 1A: you've got to get back and protect your basket, and we got to standing a little bit," Montgomery said. "I don't know if we were surprised by how athletic they were, but they're fast, they run, they've got great length, so they put a lot of pressure on us.
"We tried to zone because they have kind of a reputation for not being a great zone team, and boy, they just found the open guy and we didn't cover very well. The mistakes that we made today turned out to be glaring mistakes. It gets pretty difficult when you let the ball get thrown over top of you and give up lay-ups on the break. It's one thing to turn the ball over and miss a shot, but to have it lead to a run out or a dunk really just doesn't work."
• Sanders-Frison set a career-high with 12 rebounds on Wednesday, eclipsing his previous high of 10 boards early in the second half. He shot 3-of-8 from the floor and 2-of-2 from the free throw line for eight points, but was clearly in pain due to his double-dose of plantar fasciitis.
"He's sore. The guys a trooper. He's playing through a lot of pain, and I just feel bad," Montgomery said. "He deserves to be healthy. He's worked his tail off. He deserves to be healthy and have a chance to play his senior year. Somehow, some way, we've got to find a way to get rid of this pain. It just hurts, and ultimately, when he starts to get tired and it gets painful, he starts fouling. He doesn't move his feet, he doesn't get in the proper position. He's trying to defend. He's trying to use his body, and he's not where he should be. Then he's not square and he gets all of the foul situations."
Sanders-Frison was dinged for four fouls on the night, three of those coming after the half.
"If he can play as well as he did tonight, then we won't sit him," Montgomery said. "The thing is that if it continues to just stay like this and be chronic, then I don't know. If somebody were to tell me to sit him for 10 days and it goes away, then it's a no-brainer. But, like with most injuries, that's just not what happens. The kid wants to play, but I don't know if there's a solution. We keep trying different orthotics and so forth and so on, but we really don't have an answer to it. If we had one, we'd definitely take that avenue."
• San Diego State's nine-game winning streak is the longest in the Division I history of the program (since the 1966-67 season), and the second-longest streak in the entire history of the program.
• The Aztecs' win over the Bears snaps a 19-game road losing streak against schools from automatic-qualifying BCS conferences, dating back to 1996. They also snapped a 20-game road losing streak to Pac-10 teams.
• Gutierrez's 19 points on 5-of-8 shooting from the floor and 9-of-9 from the line were just one short of his career-high of 20 set against New Mexico.
• Cal out-rebounded San Diego State 36-26, the sixth time in eight games that the Bears have won the battle on the glass.
• Cal's series with the Aztecs now stands at 4-4 all-time.
• Despite shooting just 24.1% from the field in the first half (7-for-29), the Bears trailed by only two points at the break. Cal out-rebounded San Diego State 29-19 in the first stanza and was 12-of-16 from the charity stripe.
• At No. 14 in this week's AP poll, the Aztecs are the highest-ranked team to play the Bears in Berkeley since No. 14 Arizona State on Jan. 4, 2009 (Cal won, 81-71).
• San Diego State is the highest-ranked nonconference team to play in Berkeley since No. 10 San Francisco defeated the Bears 93-70 on Dec. 3, 1976.
• Among the season-high 9,426 in attendance on Wednesday were program luminaries Michael "Yogi" Stewart, Kevin Johnson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim.