By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY – Cal’s men’s basketball team didn’t qualify for the Big Dance.
But the Bears are one step closer to the Big Apple.
Cal advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT on Monday night with an impressive 75-64 victory over Arkansas at Haas Pavilion. The second-seeded Bears will play at No. 1 seed SMU on Wednesday night with a berth in the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden in New York City on the line.
“It’s exciting,” said sophomore forward Tyrone Wallace, who scored 16 points. “We weren’t able to play in the Big Dance, but we’re here and we’re going to play. Hopefully, we keep winning and get to New York.”
The Bears (21-13), who beat the Razorbacks (22-12) 85-77 during the Maui Invitational on Nov. 25, got off to a torrid start, leading 32-11 with 3:57 remaining in the first half. Cal led 38-23 at halftime.
After Arkansas scored the first four points of the second half to cut the Bears’ advantage to 38-27, Cal answered with a 13-0 run to make it 51-27 with 14:20 to go.
“We came out really moving the ball. That was nice to see,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “Jumping off to a big lead like that was critical. There was a little concern when they got it back to 15. It was critical that we got it back to 20. That made it difficult on them.”
The Bears led comfortably for most of the rest of the way, but the Razorback got it down to single-digits once at 63-55 with 4:01 to play. Cal pushed its lead back to 67-55 and the advantage stayed above double-digits for the remainder of the game.
Cal got it done with a stifling zone defense that silenced the cold-shooting Razorbacks to the tune of 32 percent floor shooting, the lowest for an opponent since the Bears held Washington to 30 percent from the field during a win on Jan. 15. On the offensive end, Cal did a wonderful job sharing the ball, registering 22 assists on 26 made field goals and shooting 55 percent from the field, its highest clip since connecting on 56 percent of its floor shots against Washington State on Jan. 18.
Montgomery said the Bears elected to play a zone defense after watching film from their first matchup against Arkansas this season, when Cal had a good measure of success using it in that game.
“We started off in zone and it hurt them,” Wallace said. “As the game went on and they couldn’t score, we stayed in the zone.”
Freshman guard Jabari Bird had one of the best games of his career, scoring 19 points on 7-for-8 floor shooting and also grabbing a career-high eight rebounds.
“I’ve been practicing well, just going harder,” Bird said. “Just paying attention to the little things – it’s not all about scoring. Tonight, I tried to get a lot of rebounds, and that got me going.”
Forward David Kravish added 13 points and eight rebounds and senior guard Justin Cobbs dished out six assists. Cobbs now has 524 assists in his career, tying him for second place with Jerome Randle on the school’s all-time list.
Cobbs received a huge ovation from the Haas Pavilion crowd when he came out of the game with 33 seconds remaining, a salute to the senior playing in his final home game.
Cal’s game at SMU will begin at 6 p.m. and air on ESPN2.