After three mostly encouraging performances to start the season, the Cal basketball team took a step in the wrong direction Monday night.
The difference from the past two years was that the Bears won anyway, beating Prairie View A&M 54-50 in the 2K Empire Classic at Haas Pavilion.
“That team played really hard. Nothing was really going our way, offensive or defensively,” sophomore Matt Bradley said. “But we stuck it out, we ended up winning. We’re 4-0 right now and I’m just happy to say that.”
You understand why he feels that way after the Bears won just eight games each of the past two seasons. Cal is 4-0 for the first time since the 2015-16 season.
But everyone knows this isn’t good enough. Certainly not with No. 1 Duke looming on Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
“I thought they played more determined basketball today than we did,” Cal coach Mark Fox said afterward. “I thought we were poorly coached today. I thought we played poorly. And two wrongs make a wrong. We were fortunate to escape with a win. We have to play better basketball than we played today.”
Cal averaged 82.7 points in its first three games, shot 55 percent from the field, 47 percent on 3-pointers. They coughed up just 12.3 turnovers per game.
Against the Panthers, defending champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference but a program that is now 0-19 all-time vs. the Pac-12, Cal was a mess offensively.
The Bears led 35-26 at halftime, then suffered through a seven-minute scoreless spell early in the second half. Through the first 12 minutes of the half, they were 2-for-13 from the field, 0-for-7 on 3’s and had six turnovers.
They wound up with 22 turnovers — most by a Cal team since committing 26 against Portland State in a 106-81 loss back on Nov. 26, 2017.
That was the Wyking Jones coaching era and we thought we were past that. But the Bears regressed Monday. They were 1-for-9 on 3’s in the second half and shot 30 percent overall.
“Let’s give their team credit for their defense,” Fox said. “But let’s also be honest with ourselves. I think because we had been so good offensively, we felt we could just shoot our way to victory.
“And you have to do more things than just shoot jumpers to win. Hopefully we learned that lesson today in a close one. I felt like that was our mentality offensively, and that’s not how you win.”
Fox said the Bears didn’t feed the post often enough and their big men didn’t demand the ball inside.
“There was one play where two (Prairie View) guys fell down and a guy was wide open at the rim and we still didn’t throw it to him,” he said.
Down 44-39, the Bears used a 10-2 run to go ahead to stay. Bradley, who led the Bears with 16 points, scored six during the go-ahead surge.
Grant Anticevich added 13 points, although he and Bradley both missed free throws in the final 21 seconds to keep alive the Panthers’ comeback hopes.
Cal also allowed Prairie View (1-3) to grab 13 offensive rebounds. The Panthers converted those into only nine points, but it’s fair to say Cal’s next opponent might take greater advantage.