With the game on the line, it was the future of Cal basketball that helped secure a win.
Freshmen Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews saw significant minutes down the stretch Sunday evening as the Bears pulled away for a 77-64 victory at Haas Pavilion.
With Cal’s offense bogging down, head coach Mike Montgomery decided to go with a smaller, more athletic lineup in an effort to generate turnovers and get the team in transition. It worked, as the Bears scored 10 of their 13 fast break points in the second half to open up a close game during the final eight minutes.
And Bird and Mathews were on the floor the whole time.
“The guys of the bench came in and really gave us a push,” said Cal point guard Justin Cobbs, who led the Bears with 22 points and seven assists. “They finished the game for us, so give credit to those guys.”
Cobbs’ three-point play with 7:57 remaining tied the game at 56-56, and the Bears went on to close the game on a 24-8 run. Bird and Mathews both had a hand in the decisive sequence. After Cobbs’ layup put Cal in front, Mathews converted a three-point play of his own to give the Bears a 61-56 lead with 6:23 to go. Three free throws by junior Ricky Kreklow pushed it to 64-56, and after a layup by USC’s Nikola Jovanovic, Bird scored on a reverse layup off an assist from forward David Kravish. Bird then drained back-to-back 3-pointers from the left corner, putting Cal in front 72-60 with 2:32 to play.
After scoring 11 points Wednesday against UCLA, Bird has back-to-back double-digit games in scoring for the first time since the Maui Invitational in November.
“Jabari had a good week,” Montgomery said. “He had a little bounce to his step. He just felt better. Practice was better. It’s nice to have him back in the mix and get him where we feel like he can really contribute.”
The Bears (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12) began the weekend in a four-way tie for third place in the conference standings, but Arizona State and Colorado each lost. That means Cal is now tied with Stanford for third, three games behind Arizona and two in back of UCLA
The Bears travel to play No. 4 Arizona in its next game, Wednesday in Tucson. With four regular season games left, Cal is hoping to finish in the top-four in the Pac-12 standings to earn a first-round bye in the Pac-12 Tournament in Las Vegas.
“We’ve been struggling at home lately so it feels good to get one back against a team we gave one up to earlier this year,” said Kreklow, referring to Cal’s loss at USC in January. “It’s a team we should beat. We know we can play a lot better, but every game right now is very satisfying because of how close the race is in the Pac-12 for the top four spots.”