Sluggish first half dooms Bears

BERKELEY -- Without its leading scorer in Pac-10 play in true freshman Allen Crabbe, the Cal basketball team came out flat and uninspired on Thursday night against USC, falling behind by as much as 14 points in the first half before finally pushing the Trojans to a dramatic finish, but even Markhuri Sanders-Frison's sixth double-double of the season couldn't save the Bears, as they fell 78-75 for their fourth straight loss.
"Truthfully, the first half was ridiculous," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery, who saw his Bears go down by as many as 14 points in the opening stanza. "We just didn't come to play. For whatever the reason, we just didn't come out ready to compete, and SC did. They got physical with us, they fronted the post, they bumped us and we kind of got backed off and got down, and it didn't look like we had anything going. They're good, defensively, and of course, we're playing with different lineups. I just didn't feel like in the first half, we were ready to play. I don't know why. Allen was going to play in shoot-around and then wasn't able to go and that could have effected them, I don't know. But, we certainly weren't ready to play in the first half, and it cost us."
While Crabbe participated in the pre-game shoot-around, before Cal (13-13, 6-8 in the Pac-10) took the floor for pregame warm-ups, it was determined that he would not be able to go.
"We definitely missed out on Allen," Sanders-Frison said. "We still had a chance to get them without him, but he would have helped us tremendously. I have a lot of confidence in Jeff (Powers), but if Allen would have come back, that would have made our bench that much better."
Even with redshirt freshman Jeff Powers -- who scored 27 points in his previous two games -- getting the start and performing admirably on both sides of the floor, though, the Bears came out simply uninspired and fell behind early.
"We lost (so many) guys who were supposed to be here, so at some point, you've got to have your guys," Montgomery said. "We're just, you know, putting a lot of pressure on Jorge right now. Jorge's having to do a lot and our big guys -- they have two 6-10 guys in there, and it's tough for our big guys. We did a good job, at the end of the day, statistically, but it's not some place where we could dominate at the low post."
After going 0-for-6 to start the game, Cal pulled ahead of USC (14-12, 6-7) by a point with 12:27 left in the first half, but then saw the Trojans go on a 14-0 tear, carving up both the man and 2-3 zone defense.
"We missed Al in every aspect of the game," Sanders-Frison said of his freshman teammate who owns the team's second-highest shooting percentage (45.0) in conference play and the team's highest Pac-10 three-point percentage (45.6). "He's a big kid for our team. He's a big part and he helps us out a lot, as you can see."
The Bears shot just 6-of-25 (24 percent) from the field in the first half and 1-of-6 from three-point land, while USC shot 13-of-30 (43.3 percent) from the field and 3-of-6 from beyond the arc to take an 11-point lead into halftime.
"I told them that we've still got to compete," Montgomery said. "What are we doing? Why are we out here? What? What's the worst thing that can happen? We could lose, but that's the worst thing that can happen. The least you can do is lose by playing hard. It was like we were just, everybody was trying to play one-on-one and nobody was helping anybody out. Nobody was moving, and it becomes frustrating for the guards. Nobody's moving to get open, nobody's setting screens to get open, so you end up standing out there and you end up not making good plays when the ball's not going down. You think you're fouled and you don't get a call and you get frustrated and it just all snowballs on you."
In the first half, Cal had just four assists as a team to four turnovers, while the Trojans dished out six assists to four turnovers. The Bears finished the night with 13 team assists and seven turnovers, while USC dished out 15 helpers to just five turnovers.
With Crabbe out, Cal's next-best scoring option was junior shooting guard Jorge Gutierrez, but the Trojans held the firecracker out of Chihuaua, Mex., to 0-of-6 shooting from the field in the first half. In the locker room, Montgomery sent a forceful message to his beleaguered team.
"Jorge, we challenged them at the half to compete at least, and Jorge came out and started getting after it and that one guy, just one guy, getting out and getting on balls or whatever, the rest of the guys started playing harder and we did what we should have been doing for 40 minutes," Montgomery said. "If we did that, we wouldn't have been down 11 at the half and it would have been maybe a different situation."
The Bears came out hot in the second half and closed the gap to just one point with a three from Gutierrez at 15:07.
"Coach gave us the message we needed," Sanders-Frison said. "You see how we came out."
Gutierrez hit his first shot of the game with 18:50 left in the game, but that second make was the only other shot he would hit from the field for the rest of the night, as he finished 2-of-13 from the floor.
Gutierrez was, however, intense on defense, grabbing four boards and swiping one steal while playing his trademark physical brand of basketball.
But, as pesky as Gutierrez was in the second half, he was not the player assigned to cover 5-foot-7 USC freshman guard Maurice Jones, who at one point in the second half hit five straight three-pointers to put the Trojans up by 13 with 8:21 left in the game.
"Jones obviously got it going just like (Donte) Smith got it going down there last time," Montgomery said. "It was the other side of the zone, same basic principle of putting the high-low post and the forward not getting up, away from the ball, and up to the shooter because of the low post, and now it happened on the right side of the floor where we did the same thing. We didn't get up to the shooter time and time again, and he made them all."
Last time out, it was Donte Smith who rained threes down on the Bears in Los Angeles, hitting 8-of-12 from beyond the arc. On Thursday, Jones found his comfort zone on the right sideline, hitting four of his five threes from almost the exact same spot on the floor over point guard Brandon Smith.
"They did a good job in their zone and we didn't necessarily do a good job," Montgomery said. "We could have substituted Jones for Smith, in terms that we really talked about getting to Smith, getting to Smith, getting to Smith. Well, in this game, we could have substituted Jones -- you've got to get to Jones, get to Jones, get to Jones. And, at some point, when a guy makes a couple threes on you, then you're going to have to adjust your thinking, and recognize and run him off the line. We had a hard time with that."
Jones scored a team-high 22 points on 7-of-13 shooting, going 5-of-6 from beyond the arc and 3-of-5 from the free-throw line. He was left open because of a key mismatch down low, where the Trojans' twin towers of 6-foot-10 junior Nikola Vucevic and 6-foot-10 senior Alex Stepheson combined for 31 points. Vucevic was much more of a factor than he was last time the two teams met in Los Angeles, scoring 21 points on 7-of-12 shooting, 2-of-2 from beyond the arc and 5-of-8 from the charity stripe while pulling down 10 boards.
"They were more on us about our defense, definitely," Sanders-Frison said of the halftime talking-to. "If we play hard on defense, the offense has to come. We were definitely missing some easy shots, but we had to step up our D. They were way more physical than us in the first half."
Stepheson shot 5-of-9 from the field and pulled down 11 boards -- tied for the game-high with Sanders-Frison.
"It's discouraging that kind of a well-conceived plan, the problem was Vucevic at the high post is hurting you so much that whoever takes Vucevic -- the center comes up and takes him and the forward stays down -- then the center's got to stay down and let the forward release up and that means the guards have to guard Vucevic. Jones got it going," Montgomery said. "He shot a knuckleball from way out and it went in, then they went and ran a drop behind and he shot it in. We just didn't do a very good job of getting out to him and that's kind of why we went man. We weren't able to do that."
Sanders-Frison and junior power forward Harper Kamp combined for just eight points in the first half against Vucevic and Stepheson, and without Crabbe on the perimeter, there was simply nowhere to go.
"It was certainly one place we had to go, but it wasn't a place we could dominate. We had to pick and choose," Montgomery said. "That put the three perimeter guys in the position that somebody had to do something, and Jeff tried."
Powers scored 10 points on the night on 3-of-10 shooting and 1-of-6 from three while going 3-of-3 from the line, and saw many of his early three shots hit iron. He also threw in two boards and three assists in 27 minutes.
"He didn't make all of his shots, but he was getting to the basket and made some plays, but there was a lot of pressure on Jorge, without that extra shooter in there, so it's tough," Montgomery said. "We're just really, really thin."
The Bears saw nine players take the floor against the Trojans, with seven seeing double-digit minutes. The switch from zone to man was particularly tiresome for Cal.
"I think that what's going to happen in man is, you're more likely to get fouls at the point of attack because there are going to be a lot of screens, and that's the thing that we're trying to protect," Montgomery said. "The zone is not harder, although it's boring because you have to keep running back and forth and nobody's really looking to do something. I think sometimes, when guys know they're going to have to play a lot of minutes, they might say, 'Well, I'm not going to do this, this time,' and they start shortcutting. The zone was not real tight, I didn't think. But, again, most everybody is better when you're long and athletic and can run fast and all those things. It makes everything that you do, better."
Those depth issues were particularly troublesome in the waning moments of the game. Gutierrez fell victim to the frustration that plagued the Bears all night with just 1:06 left and Cal down by seven. After trading several hard fouls with Donte Smith, tensions came to a head after Powers missed a three. Stepheson grabbed a long rebound and found Donte Smith up the left sideline, where he backed up the pressing Gutierrez. Gutierrez took offense at the no-call and wrapped his arms around the senior guard to try and get the ball. The two nearly came to blows before being separated.
USC's Smith was called for both a foul and a technical foul, knocking him out of the game, and Gutierrez was dinged with an intentional foul and the tech, putting him on the pine as well.
Brandon Smith soon followed, notching his fifth personal foul with just 38 seconds left to play.
The Trojans were in better shape, foul-wise, having gotten enough calls to amass 20 foul shots in the second half alone. Without the baseline skill of Crabbe, the Bears were noticeably less physical than they have been in recent games. Kamp shot just 2-of-5 from the field in the first half, but finally turned things on in the second, shooting 4-of-5 from the floor in the second stanza. The most telling stat, however, was that Kamp went to the line twice all night, hitting 2-of-2 in the first half and 2-of-2 from the charity stripe in the second half.
"I think, typically, when you're more aggressive, the shots tend to go down for you. Certainly, when you're more physical and more aggressive, you get more calls," Montgomery said. "All that stuff is what goes on, always. We were all tentative."
However, even down late, Cal continued to reach down and find some unexpected moxie.
"We knew, after that nice talk from Coach at halftime, that we knew we were going to come out hard and play hard," Sanders-Frison said. "We should have played like that from the jump. We still had the chance, but No. 10 (Jones) had too many easy looks. He made some tough looks too, don't take anything away from him, but he hurt us really bad."
Sanders-Frison shot 10-of-15 from the floor on the night, but no shots were bigger than those he hit in the final 60 seconds. The 6-foot-7, 265-pounder hit the first two three-pointers of his career in the last minute of the game, along with a long two-point jumper, reeling the Trojans back to within striking distance.
"I just took them because I had to take them," said Sanders-Frison. "That's about it. I always work on my shot, but it's not my strength, so I never do it. I just felt that I had to take it with the time left on the clock."
-- After being down 40-29 with 17:14 left in the game, the Bears went on a 10-0 run over the next 2:25 to come within one. Then, after being down 12 with 2:19 left to play, the Bears went on a 17-6 run to pull within a point with three seconds left.
-- Having only scored six points all season, Powers has now scored 37 points in his last three games.
-- Cal tied its season-low with seven turnovers. The last time the Bears did that, it was against Arizona State on Feb. 3.
-- With 11 points tonight, Gutierrez has now reached double digits in his last seven games. Kamp has now scored in double figures in 14 of his last 15, with his eight points against Washington last week the only blemish.
-- Sanders-Frison's double-double was his team-leading sixth of the season. His 23 points were a new career high. His previous high of 18 came against Oregon on Jan. 29.
-- Cal had five players score in double figures for the third time this season (Sanders-Frison with 23, Kamp with 16, Gutierrez with 13, Powers and Brandon Smith with 10).
-- After being outrebounded 22-17 in the first half, the Bears pulled down 22 boards in the second half, finishing with a 39-33 advantage on the glass.