This was a big win for the Bears. By toppling Utah 72-69 on Jerome Randle’s game-winning 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds left Wednesday night, Cal returns home with a 7-2 record and feeling good about itself.
“It’s a road win against a pretty good basketball team. They beat Oregon, which means nothing other than they’re capable,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “The mental set was better tonight. We didn’t force a whole bunch of shots. Just little things that made a big difference.”
Utah is a good, not great team, but the Utes have lost just 36 home games the past 19 years, so winning at the Huntsman Center is an achievement. Added to Cal’s win at UNLV over Thanksgiving weekend, and the Bears have a couple road wins in their resume.
Is it too early to wonder how all this might — yes, might — impact the Bears’ long-term prospects?
They will be favored to win their final four non-conference games, at home against Nevada (Dec. 20), Colgate (Dec. 22), Dartmouth (Dec. 27) and either Air Force or Portland (Dec. 28). If they win those, and they should, they’ll be 11-2 entering the Pac-10 schedule.
Do the math: If they go 9-9 in the conference, they’re at 20 wins. Now, nine conference wins represents three more than they had a year ago, but the league is not as tough this season. By no means is any of this a sure thing, but Cal’s performance through nine games suggests we perhaps ought to reassess what they may be capable of achieving.
Anyway, back to Wednesday night.
Besides Randle, who had 21 points, the Bears got contributions from up and down their roster:
— Theo Robertson and Patrick Christopher each scored 17 points. The two combined to shoot 5-for-6 from 3-point range as the nation’s most efficient 3-point shooting team connected on 7-for-11. The Bears are now converting 51.7 percent as a team.
— Harper Kamp scored a season-high 12 points and played 27 minutes of determined defense against a player six inches taller — Utah’s 7-foot-2 senior center Luke Nevill. The big Aussie scored 18 points, but had eight of them before Kamp entered the game and got very little against the Bears’ sophomore forward.
— Freshman Jorge Gutierrez did not score in 17 minutes, but had four assists and three steals, including a big one with 90 seconds left.
— Backup point Nikola Knezevic played just six minutes, but he was effective. He had two assists with no turnovers and slowed down Utah’s red-hot Tyler Kepkay, whose scoring sent Randle to the bench for a few minutes. “Nikola went in and did a good job,” Monty said. “What Nikola does is he simplifies things a little bit. He doesn’t try to do so much. He got the ball to some people and allowed them to be players.”
It should be encouraging to the Bears that they won despite an imperfect game.
Montgomery’s plan to tag-team Nevill with centers Jordan Wilkes and Max Zhang blew up when both had two fouls after barely six minutes. Christopher committed a potentially game-changing intentional foul with 58.5 seconds left, but the Bears got lucky when Carlon Brown missed one of two free throws, allowing the Utes to merely the game when Nevill scored on the ensuing possession.
They missed nine free throws (although Utah missed 11).
And Montgomery admitted a mistake when he had Randle call timeout with 16.8 seconds left. He meant to have his point guard dribble to a certain spot near the sideline, in order to give the Bears a better position for the final inbounds play.
“It was my fault,” said Montgomery, who spent two seasons as coach of the Golden State Warriors after his Stanford run. “Maybe this is a residual of the NBA. In the NBA, the ball is always taken out at the same place.”
Turns out it didn’t matter.