Nothing’s set in stone once it’s March, not even an 11 point lead with less than three minutes to play. Utah mustered up enough strength to come within one point of Cal’s late game lead, but it wasn’t enough to overcome early damage as Cal went on to win 78-75.
The Bears led by double digits late in the Thursday afternoon’s quarterfinal matchup, and it looked as if they had secured a spot in the semifinal. Utah finally started clicking, and its full court press seemed to stress Cal out, however, the Utes could only get within one point of the Bears’ lead.
Although Utah thrashed Cal just one week ago in the Huntsman Center, 74-44, Thursday’s game was more reminiscent of the first time the two teams squared off when Utah went on to lose in double overtime. Utah gave it a solid effort at the of the game, and it made things competitive down the stretch, but Cal did just enough to send the Utes home early.
“It wasn’t as much about the end as it was the first half,” said head coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We caught a little bit more fire in the second half, but ran into both [Jabari] Bird and [Charlie] Moore having tremendous games, had dang near 50 points between them, and we didn’t seem to have an answer for a couple of those guys in the backcourt, so disappointing obviously.”
Four Utah players finished scoring in double digits. Kyle Kuzma led the pack with 23 points, Sedrick Barefield followed with 13, Lorenzo Bonam ended with 12, and David Collette added 11. Although Utah finished shooting 51.8 percent from the court whereas Cal finished shooting 43.6 percent, Cal punished Utah for its number of fouls as the Bears hit 22-of-27 free throw attempts, and Utah went just 8-of-11 from the line.
Utah let Cal get to the rim quite a bit at the start of the game as the Bears had plenty of second chance points, but things were tight as each team matched what the other side was doing. Utah then got a bit complacent, and it had a couple of sloppy passes as Cal maintained a four point lead for a few minutes.
Bonam drove down an open lane to reenergize Utah’s traveling fans with a dunk, then Kuzma hit a layup to tie the game at 22. Bonam again drove straight to the hoop to give Utah a two point lead, but Cal hit a three-pointer to go back on top.
The lead changed hands a couple of times, but things were tied, 30-30, at the half.
Cal scored a quick four points to open the second half, and while Utah tried to keep up, the Bears took advantage of a five on four situation. Bonam was slow to get off the floor after taking a hit to the face, and the Bears hit a three-pointer to go up 38-32. Without Bonam on the floor, Utah struggled to maintain some of its first half action, and a three-pointer gave Cal a nine point, 44-35 lead.
Utah tried to edge into this, and after a few plays it made it a five point game, but Cal was quick to put out any possible Utah run with an immediate bucket. The Bears eventually made their way to a 10 point lead with 8:45 left to play in the game.
Things continued to go Cal’s way, and even when Utah forced Cal to take a hurried three-pointer, the Bears banked it in. Utah started to get some momentum going, but again, Cal seemed to have an answer for most everything Utah did, that is until Utah got hot.
Utah locked in on its full court press, and Cal had a hard time breaking it, and then finding an open shot. Eventually Kuzma hit a three-pointer to make it a one point game, but that’s as close as Utah got.
“Our problem was that we didn’t get enough stops on the other end,” Kuzma said.
Next up, the Utes will wait to see what the postseason has in store for them.
“Our goal was to try and get to the NCAA Tournament,” Krystkowiak said. “We’re not being mentioned in any kind of bubble discussion or things of that nature, so the only way you can get the sure fire ticket to the NCAA dance [was] to win this tournament.”