Allen Crabbe pleased the crowd with his 3-point shooting and Justin Cobbs followed up his Pac-12 Player of the Week efforts with seven assists, but the final analysis of Cal's 64-46 win over Utah on Thursday night came down to defense - specifically, defending the paint.
The Bears continued their recent strong defensive play, holding the Utes to 29 percent floor shooting. That included an 11-minute stretch in which the Utes made just one field goal. During that span, Cal outscored Utah 24-2 to turn a 22-14 deficit into a 38-24 advantage with 13:57 remaining.
And it was Cal's interior players - most notably, Richard Solomon - that spearheaded the defensive effort. Solomon silenced Utah center Jason Washburn, holding him to our points on 2-for-9 shooting. Washburn entered the night ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in field goal percentage (57.3%) and averaging 11.7 points per game.
David Kravish and Robert Thurman also helped out on the defensive effort inside. Utah scored just 16 points in the paint, and a handful of those points came late in the game when the outcome was decided.
"I feel like they are playing with a lot more confidence for us," Crabbe said of Cal's post players. "Things are going well or them on offense and it carries over to their defense. They're making their presence felt on the defensive side."
Thursday's win was the sixth in a row for the Bears, and eighth in their past nine games. The constant during the hot streak has been defense, especially in the past three games when Cal is holding opponents to 30.4 percent floor shooting. In two of the last three games, the Bears have held their opponent to 46 points, a season-best.
"I think this team has developed a defensive mindset," Cobbs said. "We don't rely on our offense to win games. We know it's important to play defense. We're maturing a lot and taking pride in the defense and getting stops."
Although the Utes entered the night 3-11 in Pac-12 play, they have been extremely competitive night in and night out. They've lost five conference games by five points or less. Cal's 18-point win resulted in Utah's second-worst loss of the season.
"Nobody has beaten Utah like that," Montgomery said. "Utah has been very difficult to get away from. It's great that we were able to do that."
The win allowed the Bears to keep pace with the leaders in the Pac-12. At 11-5 in conference play (19-9 overall), Cal is one game behind UCLA and Oregon in the Pac-12 standings. The Ducks were playing Oregon State later Thursday night.
Cal has two regular season games remaining - Saturday against Colorado and Wednesday against Stanford. Both games are at Haas Pavilion. If the Bears can win both and get some help around the conference, they could win their second Pac-12 title in the past four years.
"We know we have two games left and we're in second place," Cobbs said. "If we handle our business and get two wins, the rest is out of our hands."