TEMPE (Ariz.) -- Cal had statistically the best defense in the Pac-12 going into Wednesday night's game against Arizona State, but sometimes statistics can be deceiving.
Take it from the Sun Devils, in this case they are not.
The Bears turned the second-most prolific offense in the Pac-12 inside out at Wells Fargo Arena, stifling the hosts with a suffocating zone defense and doing more than enough right offensively to overcome their own mistakes in a 68-43 victory before a listless crowd of 5,107.
The win, Cal's fifth in a row and eighth in nine games, leaves the Bears (18-6, 9-3 Pac-12) in good position for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Sun Devils (11-14, 4-8) are wondering what hit them.
ASU came into the game averaging 81.2 points per game, but it was soon obvious ASU would not approach that number. In the first half the hosts managed a meager 17 points, shot 24.1 per cent from the floor, including 9.1 per cent Ã¢â‚¬â€œ that's right 1-for-11 Ã¢â‚¬â€œ from three point range. Things didn't improve for them much in the final period as they Bears kept up the defensive pressure. ASU finished the game 15-for-59 (25.4 per cent) from the floor and 3-for-25 (12 per cent) from three-point range. All three incidentally were by guard Kodi Justice in six attempts. The other long distance shooters all whiffed: Torian Graham 0-for-9, Shannon Evans II (0-for-6),
Tra Holder 0-for-3. That's a big combined oh-fer.
Had the Bears not missed some easy shots and turned the ball over 11 times their lead might have been more than 28-17 at halftime. They proved that by putting up a 40-point second half and building the lead to as high as 27 points.
Coach Cuonzo Martin, whose team had been allowing a league low of 63.1 points per game, said this might have been the best defensive effort in a season full of good ones.
"I would say so from start to finish, and that's exactly what I told the guys," Martin said outside the Cal locker room. "We've had good games defensively, but the competition wasn't at this level. To beat a Pac-12 team on their home floor the way we defended is very impressive."
The effort called to mind some of the great Cal defensive efforts of the past, even harking back as far as the days of the legendary coach Pete Newell, who used defense to win a national championship. But where Newell disdained the zone, Martin's Bears used it almost exclusively Wednesday night against ASU's band of three-point bombers.
"We might have played two possessions of man-to-man," Martin said. "I just felt coming into a night like this it would be a tough night for us if we tried to defend those guys man to man. They have (Obinna) Oleka at the five position (center) and four perimeter guys. We felt like the best shot to win the game we had to play zone."
But unlike some zone defenses, where the players plant themselves in one area and remain pretty stationary, the Bears were constantly on the move, feet shifting, arms waving. Very seldom did an ASU player get a clean, unobstructed look at the basket.
"It was an active zone," said guard Grant Mullins, who in addition to his part in shutting down the ASU shooters contributed a game-high 18 points. "Because they have so many good shooters that we had to chase them off the line and be farther out in our zone because they shoot from deep."
The Bears opened the game a little ragged and after building a 14-9 lead turned the ball over five times without scoring as ASU went up 15-14 with 7:35 left in the half. Jabari Bird, who had an off night from three-point range himself (1-for-6), hit that lone trey to put Cal up 17-15. The Sun Devils tied it on a pair of free throws by Oleka at 6:27.
That was pretty much it for ASU. Helped by ASU missing three free throws, Cal scored the final 11 points of the first half and went on a 22-9 run to start the second. In one stretch the Sun Devils went more than nine minutes without scoring and nearly eleven without a field goal.
"All I saw for that nine minute drought was the number 17 which is the score we held for those nine minutes," Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said. "We had a hard time moving off that number. Everything matters and it could have been a lot closer going into the half with the free throws that are missed and the missed shots."
Mullins had been in something of a shooting funk lately, 4-for-19 from three-point range in the last two games. But he was on fire most of the night, hitting his first six three-point attempts before missing three in garbage time.
"It comes and goes," said Mullins, the graduate transfer from Columbia who is hitting 40.4 per cent from beyond the arc for the season. "But I just have the confidence from my coaches and my teammates to keep shooting them so that's what I did."
Martin was glad to see it. "The last two games he has made some big shots but hasn't shot the ball well," Martin said. "Tonight he did."
And while Mullins was explosive the Bears got another almost understated yet superb performance from Ivan Rabb. The 6-11 sophomore, who must think that other teams play with six guys because two are always around him, still had 14 points, 11 rebounds and three assists. It was his 13th double-double of the year, fourth in a row, and he remains the focal point of the Cal offense.
"The ball has to touch Ivan's hands, whether he makes shots or not," Martin said. "You know they are doubling him. Charlie (Moore) can find the shooters and make plays, Grant did a good job making shots, but we have to flow through Ivan and allow him to kind of dictate the tempo. He can make the right passes, find his bigs or make plays on his own.
"He is an elite player. I don't know that there's a player in America that sees the double team every possession. We have to allow him to touch the ball for us to be successful."
- The Bears swept the season series with ASU.
- Cal out rebounded ASU 48-29, led by Rabb's 11 and Bird's eight.
- Cal had 17 turnovers, the most since the 20 against Oregon.
- Four of the five wins in the streak have been by double digits.
- Next up for the Bears is No. 9 Arizona on Saturday night.