With their chances of contending for the Pac-12 title hanging by a thread, the California Golden Bears marched into the McKale Center, landed a thunderous right cross to the jaw of 7th-ranked Arizona, and busted the conference title race wide open with a shocking 77-69 win.
Led by Allen Crabbe's 31 points and Justin Cobbs' 21, the Bears came roaring out of the block after halftime with a 17-2 run to take a 50-40 lead. Late in the first half, Cal went to a zone defense which seemed to frustrate Arizona - and while the Wildcats were able to close to within two late, in the end it was too much Crabbe and too much Cobbs - and after a pair of late three-point attempts resulted in air balls, the Bears were left to celebrate their first win over a top 10 team on the road since 2008, when they defeated 9th-ranked Washington State.
With the win, the Bears raise their record to 14-9 overall and 6-5 in Pac-12 play. Arizona's record drops to 9-3 in conference play, and 21-3 overall. With the loss, Arizona drops into a three-way tie for first place with Oregon and UCLA.
The schedule works in the Bears favor, as they have five of their last seven games at home. With two wins over top 10 teams in the last nine days, they also figure to see a boost in their RPI numbers. Coming into Sunday's game, Cal was 68th - yet a road win at Arizona, which was ranked 3rd in the RPI should see Cal jump several spots.
When the Bears broke out the zone, Arizona never found any sort of counter that they could sustain.
"I thought the zone played dividends for us," said Cal head coach Mike Montgomery during the postgame radio interview. "In terms of slowing them down, keeping us out of foul trouble - and face it when you've got a guy having a game like Al had it makes your offense a whole lot better and we didn't force it, he didn't force it, the ball was moving, he was turning down shots but when he got a good one he knocked it down."
Early in the season, one criticism of the Bears' offense was that it was overly reliant upon Crabbe and Cobbs to for scoring. In recent games, Cobbs' shot totals were down as we was playing more of a facilitator role, particularly because when Brandon Smith had to miss several games with a concussion, Cobbs was really the only available functional ball handler the Bears had.
Yet for Cal to become a difficult team to defend, Cobbs has to be an aggressive offensive player - he has the speed to get to the basket and a good outside shot - he just has to be careful not to take bad shots too quickly in the shot clock.
Against Arizona, he was exactly that, making 8-of-14 shots from the field and all four of this free throws. Oddly enough, this was the first time that both Cobbs and Crabbe had both shot better than 50% from the field in a conference game.
For the second consecutive game, Crabbe had an outstanding all-around game, adding a team-high seven rebounds along with five assists and a blocked shots, while making 12-of-15 shots from the field including 4-of-7 on three-point shots.
"I'd probably say it was one of the best (games) that I've had as a college player," Crabbe said in a postgame interview with the Pac-12 Network. "Coming into Arizona and knowing they were the 7th-ranked team in the country, we knew we were going to have to play aggressive defense and in the second half we had to shut them down. That led to us get easy points on the break and we executed our offense and that really helped us tonight."
The Bears made their big move early in the second half.
Trailing by five, Crabbe and Cobbs combined for Cal's first 17 points of the half, including two three-pointer from Crabbe. Defensively, Cal's zone continued to cause Arizona all sorts of problems. The Wildcats shooting percentage for the evening never ventured beyond the low 40s, but they stayed in the game due to nine three-point shots. They opened the second half with 1-of-9 shooting from the field.
"I thought we did a particularly good job of finding people as far as moving to places," said Montgomery. "(Arizona) tried to put their bigs on the elbows and guards in the corner, so we said the guards have to stay in at the elbow, bigs have to go out but (they had) to close short and use (their) length.
Arizona quickly trimmed the lead down to three points, but they could never get the breakthrough stop and score they needed to either tie the game or take the lead. In years past, Arizona might have had a top-flight go-to player who could single-handedly take the game over - but this years' Wildcat team lacks that player, and the one dominant player on the floor played for Cal.
The Wildcats' leading scorer, Mark Lyons usually tries to break down defenses with the dribble, but the Bears' defense reduced his effectiveness to being an outside shooter. While he was 4-of-6 on three-point shooting, on the rest of his field goal attempts, he was just 1-of-8.
"Lyons is a tremendous point guard," said Cobbs during a postgame radio interview. "He's their leading scorer and we just did a good job of keeping those guys out of the paint. A lot of time it got late in the shot clock and they were still on the perimeter dribbling the ball and they were confused. We made them take tough shots over took hands, rebounded the ball and got on the break and that was successful for us."
In the meantime, the Bears were getting key, but understated contributions from other players. Tyrone Wallace couldn't repeat his stellar shooting night against Arizona State three nights earlier, but he led the team with seven assists; David Kravish had eight points, six rebounds, and two blocks, and Bak Bak came off the bench to score six points in just six minutes.
Following a three-point shot by Lyons, Arizona trailed by just two at 71-69.
Crabbe made an acrobatic jumper to give the Bears a four-point lead, 73-69, then came perhaps the most vital possession of the game.
Arizona's Nick Johnson missed a shot, which was rebounded underneath by Brandon Ashley. Ashley missed his follow-up shot, rebounded it, followed-up again, but the shot was blocked by Kravish, who kept his hands straight up and avoided the foul.
The ball was rebounded by Cobbs, and the Bears subsequently called timeout.
Coming out of the timeout, Cobbs scored on a lay-up to give Cal a 75-69 lead with 39 seconds left and all that was left was to see how badly the Wildcats would miss their desperation shots.
In the first half, the Bears were nearly undone by a combination of foul trouble and the Wildcats making 6-of-10 three point shots.
After Richard Solomon picked up his second foul and had to leave the game at the 9:48 mark, the Bears looked like they might have been facing a bit of trouble. During a game that was nip-and-tuck for much of the game up until that point, Arizona quickly stretched its lead to five and when Kaleb Tarczewski made a free throw to put the Wildcats up 25-17 at the 6:18 mark, it was time to put Solomon back in.
To help protect Solomon, as well as Crabbe who'd also picked up his second foul by that time, the Bears went zone.
"Some people just don't move the same when you play zone," said Montgomery. "It's almost like their mentality is 'Oh, this is the zone so I can't put it down, I can't take it to the point of attack, I can't do this' which is really not true but it's a mindset which you have."
The game yo-yoed back and forth - with the Bears narrowing the deficit to three, at 30-27, only for Arizona to make two three-point shots courtesy of Lyons and Solomon Hill pushing the Wildcats' advantage to nine.
The Bears were able to keep the Wildcats and when Crabbe scored on a lay-up with a second left in the first half following an Ashley turnover, they went into halftime trailing by just five, 33-28.
Cal was fortunate in that Arizona shot just 42% from the field in the first half - but were six-of-10 on three-point shots. The bigger issue for the Bears was that Arizona was 10-of-13 on free throws, while Cal made both of their free throw attempts. The Bears generally haven't done a good job of getting to the free-throw line in recent games - the effect makes it tougher for the offense. Similarly, if Arizona isn't shooting well from the field, the last thing a defense wants to do is make it easy for them by sending them to the line.
The Bears now going into Wednesday's game against UCLA with a chance to knock off another team atop the conference standings. Considering that winning at Arizona is one of the biggest challenges in conference play, Cal should now like its chances against anybody in the conference.
"It should prove to us that given the proper mindset (and) given the proper approach defensively, we can play against good people," Montgomery said. "We'll see how it bears out in practice on Tuesday."