BERKELEY -- California sophomore Allen Crabbe had struggled over the past three games to find the shooting stroke that earned him the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year award last season, and looked to be struggling again early on Saturday afternoon, missing two of his first three shots against Denver, with the only bucket coming on a two-handed dunk.
Then, like clockwork, sophomore guard Justin Cobbs was sent in to shake up a game that was scoreless for the first 2:34, and a bit too close for comfort over the first eight minutes, as the Bears shot 5-for-13 from the field.
As soon as Cobbs came in for senior Jorge Gutierrez with 16:15 left in the half, he began to make a difference. The Minnesota transfer finished the night with a career- and game-high 22 points on 6-of-8 shooting -- including a 3-for-3 day from three-point range and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line -- and spurred Crabbe on to his first double-double of the season and the second of his career, as No. 20 Cal easily cruised past the Pioneers with a 80-59 win.
"Justin played very well," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "Of course, Jorge got two quick fouls three minutes in, which was disappointing, and Justin went in and it was a pretty seamless transition. He went in and actually played very well. He shot the ball well, helped in a lot of different ways. He's been playing really well. He's a guy that can score the ball. If he just can focus for 40 (minutes), he's a good player. It's unfortunate for Jorge. In the second half, Jorge wanted to stay and kind of play it out because he said, 'I need to run, I need to play, I need to get up and down,' and so we let him in for as long as we could."
Even without Gutierrez, the Bears (5-1) turned in perhaps their best defensive half of the season against a Pioneers squad which topped vaunted St. Mary's 70-58 on Nov. 23.
"Coach was telling us that we shouldn't take this team lightly, since they did come off that big win over St. Mary's," Crabbe said. "I just feel that we did a great job of executing the offense against their zone, and then, we did a lot of paying attention to detail in practice, on their back cuts, all their flare screens. They're a pretty smart team, so we just really focused on the little details and we did a good job today."
Before the break, Cal pulled down 21 rebounds to Denver's nine, with 14 of those coming on the defensive glass. While each team had six turnovers, the Bears held a 10-4 margin in points scored off of those turnovers.
"We've played pretty well in stretches," Montgomery said. "I think, probably, for 20 minutes, it might have been [the best defensive half]. We've played pretty well in stretches against each of the other three games we had, and Georgia -- we had a long stretch against Georgia where they didn't score the ball for a long time. I think the run was, gosh, 20-something to two against Georgia, a Southeast Conference school, so we played pretty well there, too. If point of attack, if we can't handle people, then that's a problem for us. If we turn it over and they're running out on us, that's a problem -- as it would be for anybody -- and we didn't do that. Once they gain some confidence in their ability to take the things away from them that they wanted to do, I think we got a lot more confident."
No where was that more apparent than in the perimeter game. Denver jacked up 25 attempts from beyond the three-point arc, hitting just seven.
On the other side of things, once Cobbs entered the game, the Bears' three-point shooting took a big upswing. The pair finished the night a combined 7-for-9 from three-point land.
"We have to be patient and make sure that we're taking shots that we can make," Montgomery said. "It was really good to see Allen. Of course, you've got Allen and Justin going 13-for-18, so that's pretty good stuff."
Of course, Crabbe did take some wild shots -- like a fall-away three-pointer from the top of the key to put the Bears up 18-11 with 8:49 left in the first half -- but overall, both Crabbe and Cobbs were able to find open looks.
After Cobbs came in, Crabbe hit five of his next six shots, and finished with a 6-for-9 shooting day for 15 points.
"I was just trying to get into a rhythm," Crabbe said. "The last couple of games, the last three games, I have been shooting the ball poorly. I've just been trying to find ways to get me a little more open, get more time with my shot so I can just be comfortable and knock it down."
Before that assault, though, he had already expanded his game onto the glass. With his 10 boards on the afternoon, Crabbe became the first Cal player to break into double-figures in rebounds this season.
"He's been struggling shooting the ball," Montgomery said. "But, he was aggressive on the glass, which was nice to see. 10 rebounds in the first half. I think when he banked that deep shot in, it kind of opened up the thing for him, so he started making shots. Let's fact it: if Allen doesn't make shots, Jorge doesn't do his thing, then we're not going to be as good a basketball team. Those guys are our players, and they've got to play. I was pleased to see Allen bounce back."
That tenacity down low was key in the early part of the game, when shots were falling everywhere but into the net for both teams. With 11:56 left in the first half, the two teams were shooting a combined 7-for-21, each with four turnovers. From there on out, though, Cal shot 21-for-37 (56.8 percent).
"Sometimes in basketball, the ball's just not going to go in on some nights," Cobbs said. "You've got to do little things like get to the basket, get to the line, get your rhythm going and after the first TV time out, we came out, we re-gathered and the ball started going in the basket. That's just the game. We've got to do little things like play defense and get on the break and get easy buckets, and then hopefully get momentum."
Once Cobbs and Crabbe got going, though, they opened up the inside for the tenacious Gutierrez and power forward Harper Kamp, who each accounted for 11 points -- but in far different ways.
Kamp went 4-for-11 from the field and 3-of-4 from the line, while pulling down five boards and dishing out a team-high five assists.
Like the rest of the team, Kamp struggled mightily against himself early on, missing four of his first five shots.
"I think Harper had some point-blank looks that were good shots. Some I don't think were what he does best, and he was so low, though, and the guy was not very big, the ball wasn't going down for him," Montgomery said. "He could have been 9-for-11 so easily, but he wasn't, so I think it's a matter of selecting what shot's a good shot for you and you're best equipped to make. That has to do with passing the ball to people where they can make a play, and knowing where that is. Where do I want this guy to have the ball? If he's not there, don't throw it to him, and you'll get that shot later on."
Gutierrez saw eight of his points coming from the charity stripe, where he hit each free throw opportunity. Gutierrez went just 1-for-4 from the field with a three-pointer.
"It's the way our offense is," Crabbe said. "We move a lot of guys in their zone, so a lot of people got to get freed up to just focus on their shot. We do have some shooters on the team, but the guys were just knocking down open shots today."
In all, the Bears tallied 26 points in the paint and out-rebounded the Pioneers 33-20 behind Crabbe and a reinvigorated Richard Solomon.
The 6-foot-10 sophomore had perhaps his best game of the season solely because of a dialing-up in his aggressiveness. Before leaving the game late in the first half with some trouble in his right eye - which was scratched during the team's trip to Europe this summer -- Solomon pulled down seven rebounds, scored six points on 3-of-4 shooting --all in the paint -- and tallied three blocks, just edging true freshman David Kravish, who swatted a pair.
"He got hit in the eye," Montgomery said. "He got hit in the eye in Europe, and it was very, very painful for him. I think he was scared that the same thing had happened and so, he'll see an eye doctor tomorrow and see where we go from here."
The first of Solomon's blocks contributed to the Bears' eight points off the fast break, as he stoned Chase Hallam down low. Kamp grabbed the rebound and fed it up the court to point guard Brandon Smith, who finished with a short jumper in transition to give Cal an early 6-0 lead.
"He was good on the boards, he had some opportunities to score the ball and yeah, it was too bad [that he went down]," Montgomery said. "Kravish was a little bit, the whole thing with all the back cuts and stuff was a little bit foreign to David, so he had a little hard time with that. He looked confused, so he was kind of standing, so we did need Rich. Rich played well. I think Richard's getting better."