It was ugly. It was pretty. It was exciting, and it was nearly unwatchable.
It was a win.
The Bears narrowly held on to defeat the Cal Poly Mustangs 67-66 to register their first winning streak since December 2017.
“I am very happy with my team, my young team finding a way to get a win,” said Cal men’s basketball head coach Wyking Jones. “At the end of the day, that’s what’s most important. I see them growing — I don’t know if we win that game last year.”
In the first half, the Bears played down to their competition, turning the ball over six times, giving up far too many perimeter shots and committing too many gaffes to count.
Connor Vanover, who had gotten off to a hot start with a career-high 7 points in his second start of the season, went out with a bloody nose with five minutes to go in the half after diving for a loose ball.
This kind of hustle defined a first period that devolved into a schoolyard-esque affair (apart from a gorgeous Andre Kelly spin move) with a flagrant foul, bloody nose and both teams shooting under 40 percent. The Bears maintained a slight lead throughout the first half with a combination of timely 3-point shooting and a strong 8-10 showing at the free-throw line, but they didn’t play with nearly the same dynamism as they did in their recent win against San Diego State.
The Mustangs deployed a zone defense throughout the game that seemed to give the Bears fits, especially in that pesky first half that sent the Bears into halftime up by only 3 points at 32-29.
“They were daring us to shoot in the first half, and I told our guys, ‘Look, we’re playing right into their hands,’ ” Jones said. “Justice, in particular, they dared him to shoot, Juhwan a little bit, Paris a little bit — and so I said, ‘Hey, we got to get the ball inside.’ And so we started to get the ball in the high post.”
Kelly and Justice Sueing were utilized as Cal’s zone busters from that high post area that Jones mentioned and performed competently and even exceptionally at times, which helped the Bears shoot 61 percent from the floor in the second half after a measly 33 percent in the first.
“Andre made some really good passes out of the post to guys cutting to the rim. He found guys, and Justice did a good job of catching at the high post and being aggressive, getting fouled and scoring, so that was the game plan the second half,” Jones said.
The offensive strategy seemed to work, but the Bears were a step too slow for much of the second half on the defensive side of the ball.
The Mustangs came running out of the gates after halftime, exploding for a 10-2 run that allowed them to gain their first lead of the game. Cal Poly point guard Donovan Fields went nuclear in the second half with 19 points, including a few nasty step backs that almost made me jump out of my seat (I just managed to maintain my objective, journalistic posture in the press box by biting down on my knuckles).
“They relied on him a lot in that second half,” point guard Paris Austin said. “The coach put him in a position to where he could excel, and he made good plays.”
Jones echoed Austin’s sentiments, saying: “We knew that Donovan Fields was going to be a focal point of their offense tonight, and they know that we switch one through four and sometimes even one through five. We just said, ‘You know what, we’re going to make him make tough shots,’ and he did that tonight.”
Fields finished as the game’s leading scorer with 26 points but was unable to translate his performance into a win partly because of his counterpart Austin who scored all of his 10 points in the second half, including the game-winning jumper with 3.8 seconds left.
The last few minutes of the game were showered with thrilling back-and-forth action, washing away the ugliness of the majority of the game in the process. The crowd finally came to life, and both teams’ benches were bursting with exuberant energy.
Fields and Austin traded clutch jumpers in the last three possessions, but Austin ultimately had the last laugh after pulling up after a clever crossover allowed him to gain the necessary space to hit the dagger.
“Right before the play, Justice told me: ‘P they switching, just make a play,’ and at that moment, I knew once they switched — I told Darius and Matt, ‘Go in the corners,’ ” Austin explained. “I crossed him over and … I just pulled up and I made the shot.”
Jones praised the Oakland native, stating he was “happy that Paris hit the shot — it gives him a lot of confidence. He’s been doing everything that we’ve asked of him; it was good to see him hit that shot.”
A few parting notes:
-Sueing finished the game with a team-high 15 points, the fourth time in the last five games he’s reached double figures.
-Darius McNeill finished the night with 10 points, which gives him four games in a row in double figures.
-The Bears shot more than 80 percent from the free-throw line for the third time in four games.
-Cal finished with a disappointing seven assists versus 11 turnovers. This kind of inefficiency won’t fly in the Pac-12.
Rory O’Toole covers men’s basketball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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