BERKELEY, Calif. – With a surging California team playing at home in front of a loud team, Washington State coach Ernie Kent decided to eschew overtime and play for the win.
Down a pair of points, Kent drew up a play for Malachi Flynn to shoot an attempted winning 3-pointer. The Golden Bears hounded Flynn into a drive that ended right in Sam Singer’s chest. The officials called a charge, WSU fouled, Cal hit two free throws and the game resulted in a 58-54 WSU loss.
But the Cougars (9-8, 2-3 Pac-12) can at least leave the Bay Area feeling like they gained something from the trip. Leading Cal (13-5, 4-2) for most of the game was a marked improvement after Thursday’s 30-point loss to a Stanford team that had not previously won a conference game.
WSU is still discovering what sort of team it is. In its first game of the road trip it looked like it would struggle to win another Pac-12 game as it was uncompetitive against one of the conference’s lesser teams. On Saturday the Cougars showed they can still hang.
“First off, I felt we played terrible against Stanford. I think it was a reality check for us,” forward Robert Franks said. “We’re more than capable of playing like this on a day-to-day basis, so it was just a mindset thing.”
WSU had a chance because Flynn, who missed all nine shots on Thursday, scored 20 points, and because Franks hit three 3-pointers in just four minutes in the first half, and because Viont’e Daniels had a career-high four assists.
Counterintuitively, the Cougars were able to score well from the outside until Cal shifted into a zone defense. Typically, hot shooting from beyond the 3-point line is the easiest way to beat a zone defense, but the Golden Bears have so much length and athleticism that they were able to still contest WSU’s 3-point shooters, who made 5 of 9 attempts from deep in the first half and just 3 of 10 in the second.
“We’re a really mentally tough team,” Kent said. “You don’t come back from the way we played at Stanford and come back and do what we did in this game. We really controlled this game until they shifted into a zone.”
Cal coach Cuonzo Martin saw the game play out the same way.
“They’re small – I say small; 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7 – and they can stretch you out and make shots,” Martin said. “I thought the zone helped us out a great deal.”
Martin also praised lanky forward Ivan Rabb’s defense on WSU forward Josh Hawkinson, who scored just seven points on just six shot attempts. Hawkinson entered the game averaging 15.2 points per game to lead the Cougars.
Most encouraging for the Cougars was the toughness they displayed on the boards just two days after getting outrebounded 43-25 at Stanford. While Cal finished with a 34-30 rebounding edge, the Golden Bears rank No. 2 in the conference with an average margin of 8.1.
Cal leads the Pac-12 in offensive rebounding percentage, and finished with 11 on the offensive glass, but was also called for a few over-the-back fouls thanks to solid box-outs by the Cougars.
“They’re so big, and they do offensive rebound,” Kent said. “You box them out they have a tendency to reach. Those were helpful situations for us and we did a good job of keeping them off the boards.”
The Cougars will need to muster the toughness they showed on Saturday for a tough upcoming stretch. WSU will host the mountain schools next week, before traveling to the desert for a date with No. 16 Arizona.
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