February 18, 2013 by Marshall Kelner
By Marshall Kelner
Wow. I still can’t believe what took place last night over the final 16 minutes at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. I wanted to punch a wall immediately following the game. Now that it’s a day after the debacle, I have cooled off at least to the point where I can write this. Everyone is going to talk about “the shove” when Cal head coach Mike Montgomery pushed his star Allen Crabbe, who momentarily left the court in disgust only to come back and go off down the stretch. While the performance by the favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year was very impressive, the story covers up the fact that it was USC that gave the game away more than it was Cal winning it. As Max Meyer correctly stated, it was a complete and utter choke job by our favorite college basketball team. I always try to tell it like it is in good times and bad, and you really can’t call the collapse down the stretch anything else. Consider this:
- A J.T. Terrell three-pointer with 16:01 left made it 47-32 USC. Cal then went on a 44-21 run to close the game.
- The bulk of that huge run didn’t even happen until the final six minutes of the game. Over the next ten minutes after the Trojans went up by 15, the closest Cal came was six points for a brief moment at the 10:55 mark. USC was able to keep it around a seven to ten point margin during that stretch.
- The 44-21 run sounds bad. It is. But it doesn’t fully show how grand the collapse was in such a short amount of time. With 6:15 left, Byron Wesley hit his fourth three (he hit one all last year) of the game to make it 61-51 USC. The Golden Bears then ripped off a 21-3 run to seal the game. Embarrassing. The Trojans made two field goals over the final six minutes. More breakdown of that stretch to come below.
- After Justin Cobbs made his only three of the game to put Cal on top for the first time in the second half at 62-61, USC interim head coach Bob Cantu called a 30-second timeout. Right after, Jio Fontan hit a huge three himself to put SC back up by two. The Bears then missed a jumper at the other end and Fontan pulled up for another triple that he nearly hit. In fairness to the Trojans, if that shot goes and they go back up by five, the result may have been entirely different. What happened after it didn’t go down? A 10-0 run by Cal. Diseased.
So why am I getting so worked up about a regular season Pac-12 game and analyzing it in such detail like it is an NCAA Tournament game? Ok, I’ll admit I’m probably going a bit overboard, but this was a huge game. I think you can make the case that considering the location and how well Cal was playing coming in, this was USC’s toughest game left on their schedule. Arizona will obviously be difficult, but they have been quite shaky on the road and USC gets the Cats at Galen.
The Trojans were playing with such swagger and confidence, finally showcasing their talent everyone knew they had coming into the season. They had won four straight and were on the verge of five, and streaks like that aren’t common in conference play. If they had won out, they would have had a legitimate case for an at-large bid to the dance with 18 wins. I still don’t think their at-large chances are completely dead, but they just made it a lot tougher on themselves. Even if you think that’s an outlandish take about the at-large stuff, no one can deny how crucial this game was for Pac-12 tournament seeding. The top four teams get the all-important first round bye, and the Trojans would have been tied with ASU for fourth with a win. Now, they are tied with Colorado for sixth and it will be an uphill climb to get in to the top four.
Ok, now back to the final six minute stretch of the game after that little tangent. As I mentioned earlier, the story coming out of this game is how Mike Montgomery was able to motivate Allen Crabbe with a shove during a timeout. Again, he deserves a ton of credit (Crabbe that is, not Montgomery, who apologized after the game for letting his emotions get the best of him). Despite all of that buzz though, USC didn’t lose the game on the defensive end. They lost it by failing to do what got them the lead in the first place: limiting turnovers, pushing the tempo, and getting quality looks from both the three point line and the paint. For that reason, this will be the only mention of how the Trojans failed defensively against Crabbe down the stretch by not running him off the three point line, not fighting through screens, and not strongly contesting his looks. Here is what happened on every offensive possession after Wesley’s three put SC up 61-51 with 6:15 to go and Cal went on that 21-3 run:
- Turnover by Dewayne Dedmon
- Missed three by Byron Wesley
- Missed layup by Eric Wise
- Turnover by Byron Wesley
- Made three by Jio Fontan
- Missed three by Jio Fontan
- Turnover by Jio Fontan
- Turnover by Jio Fontan
- Missed jumper by Byron Wesley
- Turnover by Dewayne Dedmon
As you can see, the USC offense that was completely dominating Cal in the first 34 minutes of the game and playing their best basketball of the year, just imploded. Does Cal’s defense deserve some credit? Definitely, but most of the turnovers were unforced and the shots uncontested. As TV analyst Marques Johnson consistently pointed out throughout the game, USC was doing an excellent job limiting turnovers for the first 34 minutes. They only had 11 turnovers on the night, but FIVE of them came in the last six minutes! The Golden Bears scored nine points off of those five turnovers. Here are the three main questions that I still can’t answer:
- Why did USC stop pushing the tempo? They started walking the ball up the floor way too early. That’s playing not to lose. Stay on the attack! You don’t start running out the clock until the final couple minutes. No lead is big enough, especially on the road against a quality opponent. USC was better on the fast break than in the half court all night, and the slower tempo probably contributed to the turnovers down the stretch.
- Why did J.T. Terrell not get a shot off in the final seven minutes of the game? He led the Trojans with 17 points, including three for eight from beyond the arc. Again, this goes back to the tempo. Terrell is excellent at shooting the long ball in transition and can also get to the rim. When you slow the game down, you slow Terrell’s scoring down.
- Why didn’t Bob Cantu use a timeout until after the Trojans went down 62-61 with 3:26 left? When your team is getting flustered, especially on the road, you have to try and stop Cal’s momentum and calm your team down. Remind them what got them the lead in the first place. USC had four timeouts left at that point. They finished the game with one still left on the board. That’s inexcusable considering the huge runs Cal went on, including 21-3 and 10-0.
If someone can answer those questions, please let me know. I can handle losing to a good team on the road, which Cal certainly is. What I can’t handle is giving a crucial game away when you had a 15 point second half lead. As solid a job as Bob Cantu has done in his interim role since replacing Kevin O’Neill, hanging on to second half leads has been a serious problem. This is just the first time USC has paid for squandering one, which is why the problem has largely been ignored until now. Consider this:
-On January 19 vs. Oregon State, USC led 46-31 with 18:36 to go and hung on to win 69-68. Oregon State tied the game twice, but never took the lead.
-On January 30 at UCLA, USC led 52-37 with 13:25 to go. UCLA eventually tied the game at 65, forced overtime, but USC prevailed 75-71.
-Just last Thursday at Stanford USC led 41-27 with 16:39 to go. Stanford never was able to overcome it, but came close and USC escaped with a 65-64 victory.
This is the fourth time USC has given up a huge second half lead, and they finally paid for it. I think that’s enough to say that it is more than a mirage. It’s becoming a trend. The Trojans better find a way to reverse that trend quickly if they want to make a run.
I have to end with a small caveat. This post is not meant to rip apart the USC basketball team and Bob Cantu and say that the season is over. On the contrary, I really like the track that he has put USC on in his short tenure. They still have the potential to do something special. For the most part, USC has finally shown why people were so excited about their potential heading into the season. They are playing free and easy and it’s a brand of basketball that is exciting to watch. The players are having fun for the first time all season. Cantu has made them relevant again in the Pac-12.
He will have two main challenges after getting over this game: To get USC to play their aggressive, up-tempo style for 40 minutes and to make sure the Trojans don’t lose their edge in the last five games. Both are much easier said than done. There is no reason that USC can’t win every game left on their regular season schedule. I said that before the Cal game, and I maintain that take. The question is, will USC take this game as a lesson and start closing teams out, or will they lose the swagger they were playing with during their winning streak and fade down the stretch?
I think it helps that the next game is against UCLA and at Galen. The Bruins will come in fired up after losing at home to SC, and the Trojans will have to match that energy. I don’t think there’s any way they don’t get up for that game. This is a critical potential turning point in the season. We are about to see what this Trojans team is made of. My money is on them to respond in these next five and in the Pac-12 Tournament because this is a veteran group with some prideful seniors (and juniors) that still want to do something special and send shock waves through the college basketball world before their careers at USC are over. The pieces are certainly in place to make it happen. Still, the Cal loss stings.