Basketball: Jabari Bird finds his stroke, his smile

* 6 p.m. Wednesday at McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz. (ESPN2)

Jabari Bird’s reaction to hitting back-to-back 3-point shots against USC?

“It was relieving,” he said.

For his teammates and coaches also, no doubt. But certainly for Bird.

The former Salesian High prep All-American had made just 2 of 22 shots from the 3-point arc in Pac-12 play entering Sunday’s home game vs. the Trojans.

Now he enters Wednesday night’s matchup at Arizona with something else.

“I’m going into that game with a lot of confidence,” Bird said.

In fact, the Cal freshman guard averaged 11.5 points in games vs. UCLA and USC, shooting 9 for 19 from the field. And he got playing time — a combined 47 minutes of opportunity after averaging fewer than 10 the previous three games.

“I went through a rough stretch, couldn’t hit any shots,” Bird said. “It was hard to find minutes on the court. I finally finished the game, hit some big shots down the stretch, and it was big for my confidence.”

Especially big was gaining the confidence of his teammates. Two plays before the first of Bird’s two 3-point baskets that helped cap the Bears’ 77-64 win, he took a pass from in the left corner from point guard Justin Cobbs, drove the baseline and kicked a pass to Ricky Kreklow.

A moment later, Cobbs pulled him aside. “He said, `No, you’re a shooter. I want you to shoot that.’ ”

And he did.

“That helped, too, the fact that Justin had the confidence to put the ball in my hand in that situation,” Bird said. “He’s hit a lot of big shots in his career here, so for him to defer to me in that situation, that meant a lot.”

Bird was all smiles Monday during the Bears’ weekly session. It was in stark contrast to his sagging body language during games in recent weeks.

“That was probably the one thing I heard from friends, family, coaches. Everybody was on me about that,” Bird said. “You’ve got to keep your head up. It was just tough. I didn’t know how to respond because I’d never gone through something like that before.”

But his dad, former Cal standout Carl Bird, had been experienced a similar shooting slump.

“He said his lasted way longer than mine. It was almost like forever,” Bird said. “He couldn’t hit a shot and it was frustrating for him.

“He said, `You can’t let the fact you’re not hitting shots affect you as a person, as a player. You’re still Jabari Bird. You’re here for a reason. You don’t suck, you’re just going through something you’ve never been through before. So keep your head up and play hard.’ ”

Dad gave Jabari one more piece of advice. “He tells me it’s up to me to change it,” Bird said.

Cal coach Mike Montgomery, asked if Bird has flown away from his struggles, wasn’t ready to suggest the learning process is complete.

“We always want these all-encompassing statements. Had a real nice game, had a good week, we’re encouraged, he’s a good player, only going to get better,” Montgomery said.

Bird is smart enough to understand he must keep working, keep believing. Right now, though, he’s in a good place for the first time in weeks.

“Last week I played two strong games. I’m just looking to build on it and keep improving.”

Jeff Faraudo