Basketball: New Mexico postgame

One of the most surprising Cal performances I’ve seen in years. Did not see it coming, so I’m not sure how else to characterize it.

Make no mistake, this is a team that has many challenges and obstacles ahead, including its first road trip this week, to Orlando, Fla., where it will take on No. 21 Temple on Thanksgiving evening. The Bears will have the ebbs and flows that any young team experiences, and it won’t always look this easy.

But Cal’s 89-64 rout of New Mexico was an eye-opener. And not just for me.

“You can always play better,” coach Mike Montgomery said. “But if this indeed can sustain itself, it was a pretty good step forward.”

He also said: “Pretty encouraging all the way around. We were able to get a run, we had a lot of energy, the bench was alive, we shared the ball.”

Cal never trailed, led by as many as 12 points in the first half, then settled for a 38-36 halftime lead.

In the second half, the Bears were spectacular, outscoring the Lobos 51-28. They held New Mexico to 29 percent shooting in the second half and during oneincredibly efficient  five-minute stretch — with Jorge Gutierrez and Markhuri Sanders-Frison on the bench with foul trouble — scored 20 points in a span of just eight possessions. (Do the math: that’s 2 1/2 points per possesion!)

Even before that, Monty was happy with the tone his veterans set, although he conceded that the “fear factor” of playing a quality opponent got their “juices flowing.”

Regardless, he acknowledged, “Of all of the practices and games, this was clearly our best effort as far as across the board, doing more of what we need to do to, what I like to see to be successful.”

There were contributors everywhere:

   — Harper Kamp, finally healthy, is doing things we’ve never seen from him. He scored a career-high 25 points (his previous best: 18). He’s quick and decisive, a great calming influence for his teammates and shot 6 for 6 from the FT line. And he nailed a 3-pointer — just his fourth in 68 career games.

   — Jorge Gutierrez has turned the corner from defensive wrecking ball and niche player to team leader and all-conference caliber standout. He was a guy who could change a game without scoring a point. He’s still doing those things, but he’s also averaging 19.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists after two games. He had a career-high 21 vs. the Lobos.

   — Freshman guard Gary Franklin Jr. delivered 16 points, including 4 for 10 from the 3-point arc. He always appears to play with confidence, but when he’s in rhythm the guy is an offensive machine. Can create his own shot and releases it in a flash. Montgomery praised Franklin for trying to do what he wants on defense and sharing the ball.

   — Sophomore backup PG Brandon Smith may be the most-improved player on the team. He had nine points and seven rebounds — both career highs — against UNM and was excellent when Gutierrez took a seat early in the second half with three fouls.  “Brandon took control of the game,” Gutierrez said.  Added Montgomery: “Brandon Smith had a really good game — ran the club, made good decisions.”

   — Freshman forward Richard Solomon played 19 mostly mistake-free minutes. He had eight points on 4 for 4 shooting, grabbed four rebounds and dished out two assists, without a turnover.  “He’s a freshman, he’s going to make progress,” Montgmery said. “If he pays attention. he’s got a wealth of potential. We’re trying to get him to do certain things we think he’ll be succesful with.”

And to think we haven’t even seen freshman Allen Crabbe scratch the surface of his potential. Freshman wing Alex Rossi still hasn’t played, nursing a lower abdominal muscle injury that Montgomery said will land him on the shelf for a couple weeks.

It’s one game, but this certainly didn’t look like a seventh-place team, as the Bears were predicted to be.

“I think we can be really good,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t really listen to what people on the outside say about us. We just try to be the best team we can be.”

A few other observations:

   — This can be and should be a good FT shooting team. The Bears made their first 10 without a miss vs. Northridge, then shot 21 for 40 the rest of the way. They were 2 for 9 at one point against New Mexico, then finished by making 16 of 21.

   — Sanders-Frison had some foul trouble and missed all three of his shots vs. the Lobos, but he grabbed nine rebounds in 17 minutes and is averaging 9.5 through two games. He needs to be on the court because, as Montgomery noted, the Bears will face teams down the line with stronger — and bigger — frontcourts than they’ve faced so far.

   — The Bears are averaging 17.5 assists, an encouraging sign that a young team is sharing the ball.

Jeff Faraudo