LOS ANGELES — Cal came into its clash with No. 15 USC on Saturday having lost six straight games and having lost all of its road games so far this season, but coach Mark Fox said the Golden Bears’ intent was clear nonetheless.
“We didn’t come to get close — we came to win and we didn’t quite get that done,” Fox said afterward.
No, they didn’t, as the Trojans closed out a 79-72 win in the end at Galen Center, but the Bears sure gave themselves plenty of opportunities to pull off what would have been their best win of the season.
Cal (9-12, 2-8 Pac-12) was up by 11 points midway through the first half, and even though that hot start waned, the Bears would later make it a one-possession game several times over the final few minutes.
Makale Foreman matched his season-high with 13 points, doing so in just 12 minutes of action off the bench, while Andre Kelly, Jordan Shephard and Jalen Celestine each scored 12 in a balanced offensive performance.
Overall, Cal shot an even 50 percent against one of the best defensive teams in the country.
“I was really proud of how hard we competed. I think anytime you go on the road vs. a nationally-ranked team and you shoot 50 percent from the field and 50 percent from the 3, you make more baskets than they do, you don’t get outrebounded, we did a lot of good things. But we just didn’t close it,” Fox said. “Again, we just got murdered at the free throw line and that’s the difference in the game.”
USC (18-3, 8-3), which was ranked as high as No. 5 in the country a couple weeks ago, went to the line for 28 free throws, making 21, while Cal shot 8 of 11 at the stripe.
Trojans big man Isaiah Mobley scored a season-high 24 points while guard Boogie Ellis had a season-best 21 for USC.
Early on, it was all Cal, though.
The Bears hit 8 of their first 10 shots to go up 20-9, as Sam Alajiki started the scoring with a short hook shot, Kuany Kuany and Shepherd hit early 3s, Kelly made a jumper, Kuany followed with a layup, and Kelly, Shepherd and Joel Brown added jumpers to cap that hot start.
It was still 24-13 midway through the opening half before the Trojans mounted a 19-4 run, spurred by Mobley.
Mobley launched that pivotal swing with two free throws, and the next time down court he dribbled under the basket before changing direction for a short reverse layup, drew the foul and hit another free throw.
A little later, Ethan Anderson turned a steal at midcourt into a quick layup, Ellis made two free throws, Reese Dixon-Waters made one of two foul shots and then Mobley scored again with another strong take inside. He missed the ensuing foul shot but the Cal lead was cut to 27-26.
Dixon-Waters soon tied it at 28-28 on a pair of free throws, Anderson hit a mid-range jumper on a handoff from Mobley, Cal got a 3-pointer from Foreman a couple of possessions later and then Mobley buried a 3 from the right wing for an immediate answer to push the Trojans’ lead back to 35-31.
USC would go into the half up 41-35 and never trail again, though Cal never quite went away either.
“I thought we were very deliberate and got good shots in the first half and spread it around and it was a good start for us,” Fox said. “Had some awful foul trouble in the first half and we managed to get through that without too much pain, but I wish we could have held the lead there at the half. But under the circumstances they battled pretty well.”
Shepherd was whistled for 3 fouls in the first half while Kuany, Celestine, Grant Anticevich and Brown each picked up 2.
Cal had gone with a bigger lineup to combat USC’s size, starting forwards Kuany, Kelly and Alajiki (making just his third start this season) along with Shepherd and Celestine (making his seventh start) at guard, but Mobley was a force in this one.
“He was really a guy that we knew had a mismatch whoever was guarding him,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
Cal never led again after that strong start, but nonetheless, it was a game to the end.
Shepherd hit a floater with a little more than 3 minutes to play to cut USC’s lead to 67-65, but Mobley followed with another tough score inside, backing down his defender, spinning and banking it in. Anticevich then hit a high-arching mid-range jumper, but Ellis followed with a driving layup and free throw as the teams traded shots.
That’s largely how it continued until the final minute when Shepherd scored on tough layup with a lot of contact but no foul called, which left the Cal bench frustrated but cut the USC lead to 75-72 with 14 seconds to play.
Drew Peterson would seal the win at the foul line for USC, though, making each of his four attempts in those final 14 seconds to close it out.
Fox also lamented not having Kelly down the stretch after the 6-foot-9 senior center came up limping midway through the second half. He had struggled to get up and toward the offensive end as play continued after his injury, but after a USC turnover Brown fed Kelly, who was still on the offensive end, for an alley-oop dunk before the big man limped off to the sideline for good.
“Obviously, we lost Andre. That made it really hard the last part of the game because he’s such an important piece for us,” Fox said. “There was a lot of positive things here, we just didn’t get quite over the hump and win the game.”
Anticevich, who hasn’t scored in double figures since Jan. 6, continued to struggle with his shot, finishing just 3 of 13 from the field for 8 points and 7 rebounds, but Fox saw some positives there too.
“It was really important for Grant to get started. He’s been struggling so bad and it was great to see him get going,” Fox said.
Cal is two games into a stretch of five games in 10 days and won’t fly home until Sunday before heading to play at Stanford on Tuesday.
“There is essentially no practice. It’s just walkthrough, try and recover. This was a hard-fought physical game. We’re going to need the time to recover,” Fox said. “Because we’re flying tomorrow it can’t be an off day, so we’ll try to do a little something tomorrow. We will not travel down to Stanford until the day of the game. We’ve got to figure out who’s healthy, and we’ll coach their minds and try to get their bodies to recover and recharge, their emotions to recharge and saddle back up.”