ANAHEIM, Calif. -- The cliche may be overused. But the California men's basketball team may make this their motto come Sunday night, even if it just champions of the DirecTV Classic tournament in Anaheim.
In Friday's semifinal, the Bears (5-0) beat Georgia Tech 68-57 -- not with superior shooting from the perimeter or by having more talent than the other team -- but rather, in appropriate fashion given the Thanksgiving theme, Cal decided to bring the stuffing on the Yellow Jackets (3-1) in the paint.
The Bears handled Georgia Tech's high on-ball screens superbly, and relied on well-timed double teams to turn a 34-33 game at halftime into a comfortable win. In the second half, the Yellow Jackets shot a poor 9-for-30 from the floor (30%). They were even worse from beyond the arc, converting only 1 of 7 attempts (14.3%) in that second half. The Bears also forced 5 turnovers. But perhaps the most impressive defensive statistic in the second half: Georgia Tech had zero assists on their 9 field goals. Essentially, the Yellow Jackets were forced to revert to a 1-on-1 game, and they could not even do that well.
All in all, Cal used that defensive intensity to hold the Yellow Jackets to only 24 second half points on a night when junior guard Allen Crabbe could not get into a consistent rhythm. As a result, the Bears win was comfortable.
"We played the on-ball screens well," said Cal guard Justin Cobbs -- who scored a game-high 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting and 6-for-8 from the free-throw line. "Our main thing, we wanted to keep them in front of us. We weren't worried about [defending] the three-point line."
The defensive effort truly started when Bears forward Robert Thurman hustled back to block a breakaway layup with 2:37 left in the first half. The play got Cal fans off of their feet at the Anaheim Convention Center, and provided a momentum spark that the Bears simply would not relinquish.
In the second half, Cal dared Georgia Tech's smaller guards to attack the paint. The result was a flurry of blocked shots, which allowed Cal to get out on the break and get easy points. Bears true freshman Tyrone Wallace even got in the fun, as his blocked shot with 12:52 left was followed by Crabbe's jumpshot, giving the Bears a 44-42 lead -- one which they would not relinquish.
Once it became clear that the weak-shooting Jackets would not be a threat with their guards, they shifted their entire offensive strategy to getting the ball into the post-namely to forward Kammeon Holsey. Holsey's nine first-half points were primarily in one-on-one situations in the deep post. In the second half, Cal adjusted.
"Holsey was the guy that was hurting us," said Bears head coach Mike Montgomery. "So we made a decision to run a guard down. Normally we wouldn't double from a guard. In that particular stage, Tyrone was really good because he had the length to get down, make him pick up, and then recovery back with his length and not give up a good shot. At a time where they potentially could have changed the whole complexion, they didn't get much and I thought that was huge."
Not only was Holsey relegated to only three second-half shots as a result, but the Bears forced Georgia Tech's post players to make errant passes from the baseline, easily picked by the Cal defenders and leading to easy transition buckets. All in all, on a night where the Bears struggled to shoot the basketball well, their defense was the difference.
Cal now sets its sights on Sunday night, when the Bears will be the designated home team against a fellow northern California team -- Pacific -- in the final. The Tigers beat St. Mary's 76-66 earlier Friday and topped Xavier 70-67 in Thursday's first-round game.
While the Bears will look to include a resume-building victory, they can rest easy knowing that they can rely on their defense if they want to win a more meaningful championship come March.
And if that is the case, nobody will have an issue with how overused a certain cliche is.