SAN JOSE — After executing the game plan to near perfection for more than 59 minutes, the Cal men’s basketball team almost let an upset victory in the NCAA Tournament slip away.
A suffocating zone defense and plenty of scoring help for Allen Crabbe propelled the 12th-seeded Bears to a 64-61 victory over No. 5 UNLV at HP Pavilion in San Jose on Thursday. But the “home” team provided plenty of drama for the faithful down the stretch.
“It wasn’t always smooth,” Coach Mike Montgomery said.
With 24.9 seconds to play, the Bears held a 60-55 lead with guard Tyrone Wallace at the free-throw line. The freshman missed both shots and the Runnin’ Rebels responded with a three-point play, cutting the lead to two points. Then, Justin Cobbs missed 1-of-2 free throws and the Bears quickly fouled Rebels’ guard Anthony Marshall at midcourt with 9.8 seconds to play, averting a repeat of last week’s Pac-12 tournament game when Utah tied the score with a 3-point shot in the contest’s dying seconds.
Cobbs missed another free throw with eight seconds to play and, once again, the Bears fouled before the Rebels could move the ball up the floor.
Montgomery said, ideally, his team would let more time tick off the clock before fouling.
“The fact that we are not really well-oiled in that particular strategy, I just wanted to get it done,” he said.
The Rebels hit both free throws, cutting the lead to 62-61. But the Bears managed to get the ball in bounds and run five seconds off the clock before Crabbe iced the game with a pair of free throws.
Throughout the season, the Bears’ path to victory has been through strong defense and secondary scoring for Crabbe. The team did both against UNLV.
The Bears, who played a zone for most of the game’s 40 minutes, held the Rebels to 32.2 percent from the field and limited UNLV’s top scorer Anthony Bennett to 15 points on a 4-of-11 shooting night.
“The zone kind of threw him off,” forward Robert Thurman said. “They have an [isolation] kind of offense and when you use a zone, it’s a little bit harder to get guys in one-on-one situations.”
Crabbe, who finished with 19 points, received plenty of help from the supporting cast as three other players — Cobbs (13), Thurman (12) and Richard Solomon (11) — reached double figures on the score sheet.
Montgomery said familiarity with UNLV, playing close to home and an early 7-0 lead helped calm his team’s nerves in the biggest game of the season.
“We played really hard, which is something that we’ve done off and on,” he said.