BERKELEY, Calif. – In some ways, the first game of 2020 between Washington State and California was a barometer.
Which Pac-12 rebuild looks more promising after 2 1/2 months?
Through November, December and the infant stages of January, the clear answer coming into Thursday night’s game seemed to be WSU, which had compiled 10 wins under Kyle Smith and had stashed away an impressive Pac-12 victory over UCLA in overtime last Saturday.
But Cal and Mark Fox made a case for themselves at Haas Pavilion.
Through much of Thursday’s game against the Cougars, the Golden Bears, who’d opened the year with a 6-8 record and a 16-point loss to Stanford, looked to be the more polished team and the hosts were certainly more consistent when it mattered, closing out WSU 73-66 in front of 3,953 fans in Berkeley.
CJ Elleby continued to shoot himself out of a slump, scoring 22 points on 6-of-17 from the field, and Noah Williams gave the Cougars a lift off the bench with 16 points, shooting 5 of 8 from the field and 6 of 6 from the free-throw line. Jeff Pollard had 11 points and Isaac Bonton chipped in 10, but WSU didn’t get much help elsewhere, as six players combined to score seven points.
As a team, the Cougars shot just 19 of 49 from the field, 7 of 25 from the 3-point line and 21 of 28 from the free-throw line.
“I think we did fine offensively except for that stretch where they took advantage of our turnovers,” Elleby said. “When that happens, we’ve got to kind of buckle down and take care of the ball. Hit shots.”
The Cougars entered with a better résumé and were the stronger team through the first 11 minutes of the first half, establishing a 25-11 lead. But WSU’s shot-making tapered and the defense fell off, allowing the Golden Bears to speed off on a 25-5 run that put Cal in front 40-34 at the break.
WSU missed eight shots during Cal’s decisive stretch and the Cougars committed five of their 12 turnovers.
“They made an adjustment and they started playing two guards,” Smith said. “We just didn’t keep (them) in front of us. Obviously, we’re trying to negotiate, we were in some foul trouble. Isaac had fouls, CJ had fouls, kind of tilted the game there. If I had to do it over, I’d probably use more timeouts.”
Even after conceding a 13-point lead to Cal in the second half, at a point in which the Golden Bears seemed to have enough momentum to close out their opponent easily, the Cougars clawed their way back with tough defense, closing the deficit to three points when Williams buried two free throws with under a minute left.
“He’s good, he’s just getting more comfortable out there,” Smith said of Williams. “He’s kind of a playmaker generally, pretty fearless guy and he’s just been coming on. So it’s good to see and he gave us a chance there making the two free throws and cutting it to three late.”
But the visitors couldn’t come up with the stop they needed on the other end and Cal’s Matt Bradley stepped into a 3-pointer at the top of the mark that gave the Golden Bears a 72-66 lead with 28 seconds to play.
Bradley finished with a game-high 26 points, on 10-of-14 shooting, and grabbed 10 rebounds for Cal, while Paris Austin added 17 for the winning team.
It was just the third true road game of the season for the Cougars and their second outside of the Palouse. WSU played at Santa Clara in Smith’s second game and made the short trip to Idaho in December after traveling to the Cayman Islands Classic.
“It’s only our third road game, to be honest,” Smith said. “Those are tough, you’ve got to make shots to get games on the road in league. We had some opportunities and then Bradley played terrific tonight. He had a big (shot). You’ve got to hat tip that a little bit. He misses that, we’ve got some momentum, we’ve got a chance.”
The Cougars (10-6, 1-2) travel across the San Francisco Bay to play Stanford (13-2, 2-0) at 3:30 p.m. Saturday.
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