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March 9, 2012
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LOS ANGELES -- For 20 minutes at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Thursday night, the California men's basketball team's offense was that unfortunate-looking, socially-awkward kid in high school.
Its low self-esteem led to tentative ball movement and 14 first-half turnovers, the most by the Bears in any half this year.
Its passivity prevented it from making any impact at all from the free-throw line -- Cal finished just 0-for-4 from the stripe.
And, sadly, like that kid, it didn't look like it was getting many calls, either. But it is Los Angeles...
And in the land of quick fixes and artificially-pretty people, nothing is permanent -- not a nose, a lip or an offensive output.
At halftime, Bears coach Mike Montgomery got surgical on his ugly duckling, and Cal emerged from the locker room a totally different team, leading to a 77-71 win over Stanford in the quarterfinals of the inaugural Pac-12 Tournament.
It's transformation would've made Dr. 90210 down the street jealous.
"We played nervous and not very sure of ourselves," Montgomery said of his team's first-half performance. "But we go in at halftime, and I said, look, we've turned it over 14 times. 14 times. We do anything right and we can get right back in this game."
With Cal trailing by seven at the break after one of its worst offensive halves of the season, senior guard Jorge Gutierrez shook off a sloppy start and led the Bears on an aggressive 15-3 run in the first 4:08, highlighted by numerous drives to the basket and punctuated with an Allen Crabbe three-pointer that put Cal up 38-33.
In fact, the Bears had more free-throw attempts and makes (6-for-7) by the first media timeout of the second stanza than they had the entire first half.
"I thought, more than anything else, we started to trust one another," Montgomery said. "We started to make each other better players. So we had some confidence off of that, which we hadn't had lately."
It also helped that Cal was holding onto the basketball.
The Bears' 14 first-half giveaways masked their rather respectable 45.8-percent shooting clip. Just three turnovers in the second half though, afforded Cal's offense the opportunity to get into even more of a rhythm, which led to a blistering 57.7-percent output in the final 20 minutes.
"Guys were getting the ball, on balance, in rhythm," Montgomery said. "Then a ball went down. That was like, oh, wow, ya know. Then the next ball went down."
But at multiple junctures down the stretch, when it seemed as if the Bears had the momentum and the chance to extend its lead to an insurmountable one, Andrew Zimmermann and the Cardinal were there.
They seemingly had an answer for every Cal score, and Stanford tied the game three different times in the final eight minutes, preventing the Bears from distancing themselves and forcing Montgomery to dole out big minutes.
Four Cal starters notched 36 or more minutes, a dangerous situation for a team that hopes to play three games in three days.
"Yeah, I couldn't worry about tomorrow," Montgomery said. "Fact of the matter is I think there are certain people we have to have on the floor to be successful. That's what it takes for us to win. We need to develop more depth, I'm just not sure we can do it right now."
Not likely, considering the Bears will tip again in less than 24 hours.