The No. 12 California Golden Bears made the most of the closest thing the NCAA Tournament has to home court advantage, stifling the No. 5 UNLV Runnin' Rebels' offense in San Jose in the second half to pull off a 64-61 win and a modest upset.
Six missed free throws by Cal in the final minute made this one interesting, but both sides opted to foul for the game's final 15 seconds, making for a pressure-packed, if arduous, finish. In the end, a 10-minute stretch of play where UNLV couldn't hit a field goal did the Runnin' Rebels in, as they couldn't complete a comeback after trailing by seven with less than a minute to go.
There were some qualms about the selection here, as the No. 12 seed Cal basically got to host No. 5 UNLV with the San Jose "neutral" site just 45 miles from Berkeley. And there were also issues with the rematch, as these teams met in December, while the tourney isn't supposed to pair teams that have previously played against each other in early rounds. But that game was a thriller -- UNLV won on a last-second Quintrell Thomas putback -- and this one would remain exciting until the end as well.
But both squads would get scoring from strange places: Pac-12 player of the year Allen Crabbe was uncharacteristically off for Cal, recording just 17 points on 16 shots. And for UNLV, leading scorer Anthony Bennett -- who had 25 points and 13 rebounds against Cal in the first game -- only had 13 points. Then, after a strong start from Bryce Dejean-Jones -- he had 10 of the team's first 15 points -- the guard ended up with just 14 points on the game.
But Robert Thurman, a defensive-minded backup forward for Cal who averages just 4.5 points per game, would get loose over and over again around the hoop, shooting 6-for-7 from the field with six dunks. And Justin Cobbs, normally a pass-first guy, went 3-for-3 from beyond the arc despite being just a 31.9 shooter from deep on the season. And while UNLV was generally off from the field -- 19-for-60, just 31.7 percent -- they got to the line at will, taking 26 free throws.
Cal started off great, feeding off the atmosphere to score the game's first seven points and force a UNLV timeout. But Dejean-Jones did not appreciate Cal's early lead: he drilled two threes and finished some drives around the bucket to score 10 of his squad's first 15 points, giving the Rebels a 15-12 lead. From there, the teams would trade blows a bit: UNLV hit over and over from downtown, draining five of their first ten shots from deep, and although Khem Birch was blocking pretty much every shot the Bears took -- he ended up with four in the first half -- Cal grabbed a lot of their misses and scored. A 9-2 run for Cal featuring a Richard Solomon putback and three -- just his fourth of the year -- got the Bears ahead, but the Rebels scored five straight as well, and eventually, the squads headed to the break knotted at 28.
Just like in the first half, Cal was gangbusters to start, scoring on four of their first five possessions. UNLV held pace for a while, but then they stopped connecting. The Bears went on an 8-0 run punctuated by a three from Allen Crabbe., and UNLV completely failed to hit from the field some thanks to strong interior defense by Cal's Richard Thurman and David Kravish, some just wide-open misses. The Rebels would miss a whopping 15 field goals in a row, spanning over 10 minutes of game time.
Seriously, UNLV couldn't hit anything:
UNLV was able to hang in, however, thanks to some trips to the line, and when Mike Moser finally hammered in a fast-break tip-in, they were only down six points. But for all UNLV's interior defense, they couldn't find an answer for Thurman. Smart passes and strong offensive rebounds would get the center eight straight points for Cal, all on modestly contested dunks.
Things got interesting late as UNLV, down six, went to the line with a flagrant foul after Cobbs snatched at DeJean-Jones' arm on a fast break after a steal. But UNLV only made one free throw, then didn't score on the ensuing possession, and a dunk by Richard Solomon turned the lead to seven points with less than a minute left. Cal would miss four free throws and Bennett would get a three-point play to cut that lead to two. But it wouldn't be enough.
The Golden Bears will play the winner of No. 4 Syracuse vs. No. 13 Montana on Saturday.