BERKELEY-While the first-half officiating was the talk of most fans on Sunday afternoon, it was the final minute of the second half that truly defined the Cal basketball team's 80-78 loss at the hands of Southern Miss.
"At the end of the day, we've just got to make sure that we finish games when we have them won, and we did have this game," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "But, we just gave it away at the end with bad decision-making."
With 46 seconds left, the Bears (5-4) and the Golden Eagles (7-1) were knotted at 76 points when Josimar Ayarza fouled Cal junior Jorge Gutierrez as he tried to drive the lane. Gutierrez missed the front end but sunk the second to put the Bears up by one.
Enter: Gary Flowers. After getting two quick fouls in seven minutes of action in the first half, Flowers walked all over Cal in the second, and with less than a minute left, the game was decidedly his to win. With 36 seconds left, Flowers drove down low and drew Harper Kamp's fifth foul, sinking both of his free throws to put Southern Miss ahead by one.
On the ensuing in-bound, Gutierrez fought through a full-court press, eventually getting the ball to Allen Crabbe driving the baseline. Crabbe-who scored seven points on 2-of-5 shooting from the floor and 3-of-4 from the line-went up and drew the foul from Flowers, hitting one of two from the charity stripe to tie the game up for the 11th time. With just three seconds left on the clock, possession rested with the Golden Eagles, which meant that Flowers-already with 26 points on the board on 9-of-15 shooting-would be taking the rock on their final possession.
"Flowers was pretty good down the stretch," Montgomery said. "He didn't miss many plays. He's good off the glass, he's got great touch, didn't miss any foul shots and we pretty much had trouble defending him all-game-long. I thought Jorge was our best bet, and I still think the same way."
Point guard Angelo Johnson brought the ball up the floor, guarded by Cal sophomore Brandon Smith. He found Flowers on the left wing, where the 6-foot-3 Gutierrez was waiting, taking contact several times before the 6-foot-8 Flowers was able to juke around both him and a late-helping Nigel Carter to hit a nifty turnaround jumper with three seconds left, icing the game.
Carter in-bounded the ball to Gutierrez with the next possession, but all he could do was dribble up as fast as he could to the three-point arc and attempt a 35-footer as the buzzer sounded, finding only the back iron.
Montgomery had desperately wanted to double-up Flowers with some size on that final possession with a pair of big men, but he had a problem: the first half.
"We didn't have a lot of bigs, and it was pretty obvious that that's where they were going to go," he said. "Jorge, of all the guys, probably might do the best job of getting a strip and they did a good job of getting the ball to him. You'd like to deny the ball to him if you possibly could, but it was pretty obvious where they were going.
During a plodding period which took 52 minutes of real time to play 20 minutes of basketball, the Bears and Southern Miss committed 15 fouls each, with two of Cal's big post presences-Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison-getting called for two and three, respectively.
By the time Flowers hit the game-winner, the other big option to defend him-Richard Solomon-had four fouls. Kamp's foul troubles hampered his defense tremendously as well, in the second half, by his own admission, as he grabbed just one board after halftime and two total on the game.
"I think, personally, especially down the stretch, I played a little soft, so if I could have come up with a few stops there, we would have won the ballgame," Kamp said. "Looking back, you can't really let fouls affect you, especially down the stretch. A stop at that point was more important than anything else, so that last play there, I tried to force him left-he'd been going right all night-and I thought I did a decent job on that last play, but I guess not."
Even with that, Kamp still contributed a team-high 20 points on the afternoon on 7-of-7 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe.
Calls were quite numerous on both sides, with the Golden Eagles committing 28 infractions to the Bears' 25. After the first half, an announced crowd of 8,137 (in reality, it was about half of that) lustily booed the officials off the floor when the buzzer sounded.
"The first half was definitely pretty choppy," Kamp said. "You have to be able to adjust to that, I think. I think we did a decent job of coming out in the second half and playing through it, not worrying about the calls or what was going on, but just worrying about ourselves and trying to do the little things."
With 16:46 left in the first half, Kamp and Devonta Newbill both went up for a rebound on a missed jumper by Gutierrez, and the incidental contact was called as a foul on Kamp, which brought Montgomery out of his chair in anger and frustration. On the next play, Solomon got popped in the nose hard while battling for a rebound, and no call was made, while on the other end, the 6-foot-9 true freshman was called for a phantom foul of his own trying to grab a board after R.L. Horton whiffed on a long three.
"The first half was abysmal," Montgomery said. "I don't know what the heck was going on. Harper played 22 minutes, the whole game. Markhuri fouls out. Thank goodness for Nigel and Richard to come in and play."
Carter was Cal's saving grace on the day, posting a career game with 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting and going 4-of-4 from three-point range.
"Thank goodness Nigel came in and made shots," Montgomery said. "He was very confident and we had some great looks. I thought we had some great looks. I thought, offensively, we pretty much got what we wanted to get. We just didn't make shots, and when Nigel came in, all of the sudden, he made shots."
As soon as Carter came in, he provided a spark. After a miss by Southern Miss and a hard-fought rebound by Gutierrez, Carter hit a mid-air double-pump to put the Bears up 18-17 with 12:27 left in the first half, capping off a 12-1 run during which Carter and Solomon registered five and seven points, respectively.
"He kept us in the ballgame," Montgomery said of Carter. "Thank goodness, because we'd have been in big trouble, because they were a hard team to defend with their athleticism. They get up on the glass and they go get it. We weren't physical enough to keep them off the glass."
Cal pulled down just 14 boards in the first half-all on defense-while the Golden Eagles tallied 23-10 on offense and 23 on defense-and scored 10 points in the paint to the Bears' two. All told, Southern Miss scored 20 points in the paint and out-rebounded Cal 35-24. The Bears pulled down just two offensive boards in the second half to the Golden Eagles' 13.
"They went over our backs and got a lot of rebounds," Montgomery said. "It was tough."
Cal scored 29 of its 78 points off of the bench, easily the best total this season. The Bears' backups also chipped in 10 boards, six assists and two blocks for their best performance of the year.
"I don't think there's any question about that," Montgomery said. "Emerson Murray made a nice play and Robert Thurman went in and Robert, I don't know if he's played all season, but we had Robert in there at the end of the first half. We just didn't have any other options."
The questionable calls during the first half went both ways, as Flowers was dinged for two in just seven minutes of action, during which he scored five points. Had Flowers not gotten in early foul trouble, chances are that Southern Miss could have had a much bigger lead going into the break than just 41-40. However, the same could be said of the Bears, who deal with the fact that seven players had at least two fouls to their names.
"It was difficult," Montgomery said. "I thought we should have been up a whole bunch in the first half. It was difficult, and really, I thought we were a little tentative, defensively, because of foul trouble late. We needed to be more aggressive, but poor Markhuri is moving around and can't move. I thought we should have done a better job of taking charges when they drove. They obviously weren't looking to draw kick. They were looking to go to the basket."
Flowers came out with a vengeance in the second half, playing all 20 minutes, shooting 8-for-10, 2-of-3 from three-point range and 6-of-6 from the free throw line to finish with a game-high 28 points.
"He played well tonight," Kamp said. "He's a good player, he's got a nice touch from outside and on the glass."
Cal owned the stat sheet in several important categories, out-shooting the Golden Eagles 50% to 40.3%, notching 18 assists to Southern Mississippi's four, posting seven steals to the Golden Eagles' one and out-blocking their opponents 2-0. But, the Bears also surrendered 11 turnovers, including a few no-look passes where the wrong player wasn't looking. One costly turnover occurred with 2:12 left in the game, when Kamp tried to dish the ball to Gutierrez down low, but the pass sailed wide and into the stands.
"We obviously didn't take care of the ball at the end of the game," Montgomery said. "That's where you've got to have really good guard play, at that point. We made some bad decisions in terms of getting shots and running clock. I think if we had just run clock and forced them to have to play through the whole clock, I think they would end up fouling us, even though we did miss two our of four. I think we would have been able to maintain the lead, but when Harper passed to Jorge-which was not what you would have wanted-that was one turnover, and then Brandon (Smith) had a couple. Those were critical."
Missed opportunities were no more painful than when the ball was in the hands of two-guard Gary Franklin, who, while showing improved shot selection, went just 1-for-8 from the floor.
"He just has to keep working; we've got to give him confidence," Montgomery said. "We have to put him in a position. He did some other things. He had some nice drives, he dished the ball a couple times, but we were struggling to score, and with Nigel going in and making shots, it just felt like that was the way to go. Gary's a good player, we've just got to stay with him. He had good, open looks, and those are shots he generally makes. He wasn't forcing things today, he just couldn't get it to go in."
With Carter's superior shooting night, Montgomery acknowledged that having Franklin come off the bench is an option, going forward.
"We've got depth issues, regardless, so trying to find the right combination of people, whether it be starter or non-starter, or whether it be whatever, we need to have the right combination of people," Montgomery said. "If somebody were to be better off the bench, I wouldn't have any problem with that if took away the pressure."
• Southern Miss was the latest in a long line of tough opponents for the youthful Cal squad, but if anything, the challenges presented will build character.
"Obviously, tonight is discouraging, especially considering those last few minutes of the game, knowing we probably should have come out of there with a win if we had made a couple better decisions, personally and as a team and got a few stops," Kamp said. "That's all it came down to: those last few possessions. But, the toughness of the schedule, I think, is definitely going to help us in the long run."
• Kamp scored the Bears' first 12 points of the second half, going 6-of-6 from the field over the first 4:28 after the break.
• Cal surrendered a season-high 80 points to the Golden Eagles, topping the previous high of 77 against San Diego State.