BERKELEY-Stop me if you've heard this one before: it wasn't pretty, but they got the job done.
That bromide seems to be the one constant this season for the Cal basketball team, as the Bears once again turned in a winning-if uneven-effort against UC Davis (3-5) on Wednesday night at Haas Pavilion, coming away with a 74-62 victory over their sister school for the 31st straight time.
"Every game you play, somebody's going to do a different thing. I thought Davis did a nice job. I thought they were obviously prepared for what we do," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery, who was facing his former charge Eddie Miller for the first time since Miller transferred out of Berkeley following the 2008-09 season. "They played Portland, who does the same stuff, and prepared for that. Eddie of course played here and knows what we do, so I'm sure he helped prepare them. The things that they thought we might have wanted to do, they did a pretty good job of taking away."
Montgomery was clearly exasperated at times, as his Bears (4-2) played without much ball control for long stretches. Junior point guard Jorge Gutierrez had nine points, three assists and two steals, but committed a game-high six turnovers, trying to force balls into all-too-tight windows, sometimes without the target looking in his direction, and particularly in the low post to Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison.
"We made some very poor decisions on our passes, without question," Montgomery said. "We only had 13 turnovers-which is not excessive-but many of them were on forced turnovers, trying to throw the ball to people who just weren't available. We've got to learn to pick and choose when we try to hit some people and how we make those passes. We had a lot of one-hand passes that are just not sound basketball passes. Most of them turned into turnovers."
When Davis (3-5) was able to get the ball turned over, the Aggies capitalized by exploiting the Bears' weak transition game, scoring 13 points off of turnovers.
"They take it out and they push it in transition, in the first half in particular," Montgomery said. "They take it out, and the interesting thing is that they've got four guys who can handle the ball, so it doesn't matter who gets it off the boards; all four of their guys push it out, which is different. They're running the floor, getting down the floor and they hit some threes in transition that we were not back for, and we needed to do a better job of that. We let them-a couple times-get ahead of us. They didn't get much off the break, per se, but they did get some stuff off transition, of us losing our men, us not recognizing. There were probably 10 points where Harper lost vision. (Joe) Harden one time got behind him and laid it up, and another time we had two guys guarding here and they hit a three over there."
A large part of Davis' game plan was eliminating scoring in the low post, where Cal struggled, netting only six points in the paint.
"They really jammed up the paint, they really fronted and backside helped and we didn't do a very good job of skipping the ball to other people," Montgomery said.
The Bears' biggest scoring threat down low-Kamp-scored just seven points on 3-of-9 shooting, and was forced to the outside all night, unable to get good penetration. On defense, Kamp was tasked with marking the Aggies' top shooter in Joe Harden, who scored a game-high 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
"You can't let a guy get 27, that would be first and foremost," Montgomery said. "The two guys that we tried to focus on-understanding that we had one day, and kind of a short day at that, to prepare-we did emphasize (Mark) Payne and Harden. They score 40 percent of their points, and in this case, they scored 60-some percent of their points. They're good players, and we didn't do a very good job on them. It was a hard match-up for Harper, because Harden plays away from the basket-he's a three-point shooter-and I don't think Harper has spent a lot of time out there.
"I suppose we could have had another match-up and put him on somebody else, which, maybe we should have done. He's had a hard time, and Harden did a really great job."
While Harden didn't attempt a single three-point shot, Cal's distance expert Gary Franklin was far more accurate than he had been recently when it came to the long ball, and notched a team-high 13 points as a result.
"Gary's a good basketball player, and he's not going to have games like that all the time, often, hopefully never," Montgomery said of his true freshman shooting guard's 8-for-36 stretch over the previous three games. "You've got to let the game come to you, and I think that's the case for a lot of guys, trying to force action and do things that just aren't there. You've got to let the game come, and I thought he did a much better job of that. The shots that he took were better shots. A lot of them-the inside-outside shots-he'll make way more often than not. I thought that he was patient with the game, penetrated some and made some nice passes, but he's a good shooter, and four assists to go along with some points is good stuff.
In practice this week, the coaching staff worked with Franklin as much physically as psychologically.
"Yesterday in practice, (Montgomery) made a few comments to me, just telling me to find a way to adjust," Franklin said. "I've always been able to do that, with my (arm) injury and everything. I just found a way to adjust yesterday. I was shooting a lot of shots and just found my touch again."
Franklin attributed his renewed accuracy, in part, to a return to some of his old shooting mechanics. Back in middle school, Franklin broke his left arm, and now wears a padded sleeve because contact, he says, "makes it tingle, like I got hit in my funny bone." That injury has forced Franklin over the years to develop a certain mechanical adjustment in his shot.
"I felt coming in, a few of the coaches were talking to me about my shot and they were saying that I should start my form up (high), and I naturally shoot from this position," Franklin said, showing a lower start-point off to his right side. "With my injury, I shoot a natural one-handed shot, and so I tried to change it a little bit, but now I just have to shoot it the way I've been able to shoot it. It wasn't so much of an adjustment-they were just trying to get me to have more arc on the ball for when I get tired."
In a more comfortable zone, Franklin slowed down on Wednesday, becoming far more selective and smart with the shots he took.
"We told him, 'Look, you're not a 30-percent shooter. You're not a 2-for-10 foul shooter,'" Montgomery said. "Obviously, the thing you've got to do is be selective with your shots and sometimes, you've got to turn down some things and get on a rhythm."
Franklin was 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-of-6 from three-point range. He made both of his free throws, contributed three boards and had four assists.
"Yesterday I shot 100 free throws and then I shot for an hour after everybody left, just going back to my mechanics and shoot the way I was shooting in high school," Franklin said.
"I think it was a mix between a lot of things: Us struggling offensively, me trying to get us going a little bit, maybe being overeager, and then two, playing out of position sometimes. It's a little tough to adjust, but I think, tonight, I just came in with a mindset that I'm going to take shots in rhythm, shots that I felt good taking."
Franklin was still sporting a red mark in his eye, a product of an errant finger during the Bears' defeat of Temple in the first round of the Old Spice Classic last weekend, but made no excuses for his poor accuracy.
"It's still red, and sometimes I get headaches, on-and-off," Franklin said. "I got poked in the eye out in Orlando in the first game. The guy's finger went all the way into my eye, and it was bleeding. My vision wasn't blurred, so they said it'll get better."
Nine different Bears saw double-digit minutes on the night. Cal scored 27 points off the bench, in large part thanks to the play of Bak Bak-who went 6-of-6 shooting in just 14 minutes-and Nigel Carter, who scored six points and swiped one steal.
"I was just going to play hard," Bak said. "When we were in Orlando, the coaches told me, 'We really need you. Don't be scared to make mistakes. Every basketball player makes mistakes. If you're scared, you're not going to do anything.' At first, especially when we were in Orlando, I was really kind of nervous. Every time I'd go in the game, I didn't really know what to do. I didn't find out that that was affecting me until Coach informed me about it. Then, I was like, 'OK, I'll change everything.'"
Bak also pulled down six rebounds-tied with Richard Solomon and Miller for the game-high-and notched a steal.
"The bench saved us tonight," Montgomery said. "Between Bak and Nigel, really, and Solomon, who came in and had a solid game with seven points and six boards-those three guys were really some of our better players. Bak did a really good job. I think he's better at home. I think he's more comfortable here, and, obviously, I don't think he felt threatened, physically, by these guys, and sometimes you get some of the other teams and they're much bigger and stronger. But, we talked after the trip, and he said he thought he could help, he wanted to try to help and we wanted to give him the chance to help, and he did."
Solomon did have one rookie moment, when, following one of his two steals late in the second half, the 6-foot-9 true freshman's slow, loping gait nearly caused him to get stripped from behind by 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Ryan Sypkens, before Solomon finished off with a dunk.
"He rebounded the ball well and put it back, but I don't know if a full-court dribble is probably in his best interests," Montgomery said. "But, he made the play."
As a team, the Bears had a decent shooting night, hitting 29-of-54 shots (a season-high 53.7%), but at times took wild flyers that were woefully off the mark, whether because of traffic or contestation.
Davis shot 48.9% (23-for-47) on the evening, including a 33.3% mark from three-point land in the first half, which kept the Aggies within smelling distance until Cal pulled away late in the second half.
"You watch those guys warm up, and they shoot the ball pretty well," Montgomery said. "They do shoot the ball well. They've got a bunch of guys that can shoot the ball."
• Cal is now perfect in its all-time series with UC Davis with a mark of 31-0.
• The Bears have now won 41 of their last 43 non-conference games in Haas Pavilion, including the last 22 in a row.
• Montgomery is now 34-3 overall in Haas Pavilion as the Cal head coach. Tonight marked his 50th win as the Bears skipper in 74 games. He has reached the 50-win plateau faster than any Cal head coach since Nibs Price won 50 of his first 60 through the 1928-29 season.
• Two Bears tallied perfect shooting nights: Bak and Sanders-Frison, who went 5-for-5 for 10 points, adding one rebound and one steal.
• Cal set a season-high with 20 assists. Kamp tied his career-best with five helpers, and Franklin also tied his career-high with four. Point guard Brandon Smith played 19 minutes and, while he shot just 1-for-5, also tied his career-high with four assists.
• Carter's six points set a new career high, as did Bak's 12. Bak's previous best was four points, coming on Dec. 29, 2009, against UC Santa Barbara. His six boards were also a career-high, surpassing his five against Utah Valley State on Dec. 28, 2009.
• The Bears tied their season-high in steals with eight, last set against Cal State Northridge on Nov. 16.