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February 27, 2010

Cal Clinches First Conference Title in 50 Years

BERKELEY-On any given day, Cal senior Jerome Randle stands just a shade over five feet, eight inches tall. He can duck under most crowds without much notice. On any other day, Randle is quiet. His soft voice barely carries to the back of the Haas Pavilion media room.

But when the Bears' point guard stood atop an appropriately blue and gold ladder underneath the north basket, well over 10 feet above Haas Pavilion's Pete Newel Court, the little Bear that could stood tall and roared, and the mad, pulsing throng beneath him on the floor and above him in the stands roared back.

"It was great," Randle said. "I've never been that high up."

As the confetti rained down after the Cal basketball team iced its 62-46 win over Arizona State, the celebration began in earnest, with the Bears right in the middle of it all.

"At first, it was just a little bit, and then, as we got to the middle, it just started raining," said senior guard Patrick Christopher. "It was a great feeling."

Randle, Cal's leading scorer this season, only netted seven points, but those seven might as well have been 70 to the 172-pounder out of Chicago, as the Bears downed the second-place Sun Devils to clinch a share of the program's first conference championship since Newell guided Cal to a fourth-straight crown 50 years ago, when a gallon of gas cost-get ready for this-31 cents.

"I told a couple of guys that I'm not looking to score tonight. Everybody was getting excited about the scoring title, but I was more excited about winning the Pac-10 title," said Randle, who is fourth in the conference in scoring and just 44 points away from becoming the program's all-time points leader. "I'm excited, and I'm glad that I was able to go out and just lead the team without even scoring a basket, basically. I'm just happy my team stepped up and deal with adversity and whatever else came with it."

Arizona State (20-9, 10-6 in the Pac-10) pushed the Bears to the brink in the first half, matching Cal shot for shot and drive for drive as the lead changed hands seven times in the first stanza. By the time the halftime horn sounded, the Sun Devils held a slim one-point lead.

"I said to the coaches sometime during the first half, 'Golly,'-golly wasn't the word I used-'Arizona State is really good.' They were doing everything right," head coach Mike Montgomery said. "They were shooting the ball, they were defending and we had our hands full. The second half, we just stepped it up a notch. It may have been that, in the first half, the kids were surprised at how good Arizona State was, because we were doing what we were trying to do and the next thing you know, we're not ahead."

The Bears (20-9, 12-5) came out on fire as soon as the second half began, going on an 23-12 run over the first 11:20 of the period to take a 10 point lead thanks, in large part, to the efforts Christopher, who pulled down two clutch boards and netted seven points during the run, along with contributing stifling defense on Sun Devils leading scorer Ty Abbott.

"I thought Patrick was great on Abbott," Montgomery said. "We ask a lot of Patrick. He's one of our primary scorers, yet we've consistently asked him to guard the other team's best shooter, and he did a great job on Abbott, a lot of energy."

With every defensive stand, the sell-out crowd of 11,877 held its breath. With every shot those assembled, erupted. Cal fed off the energy in the building, and senior Jamal Boykin pounded his chest and shouted to the rafters as he frustrated Sun Devils star scorer Eric Boateng at the baseline.

"Jamal and Boateng were going at it like two Brahma bulls inside, and I thought Jamal was great with the energy he gave on Boateng," Montgomery said. "Boateng has been a go-to guy for them, particularly when the ball's not going down."

Boykin pulled down seven boards and scored 14 points-tying him with Christopher for the game-high-in his final home game, and as he walked into the media room after the celebration, he wore his letterman jacket over a new, more valuable piece of clothing: a Pac-10 championship t-shirt.

"I'm going to wear it all night," Boykin said. "Why not? Just for today, though. After today, it's back to business."

Boykin and the Bears stifled Boateng, holding him to 2-of-2 shooting and forcing Arizona State to the outside, where the conference's leading three-point attack fell flat when it counted, sinking just three of 22 attempts from beyond the arc.

"They're a three-point shooting team, and when they get in trouble, they go to Boateng, and that's where I think Jamal did a pretty good job," Montgomery said. "We had a help concept that we tried to put in there. We extended on the shooters. We knew that they want to shoot the ball-Abbott, Kuksiks-but we just said, no free looks. And then they started driving us, and they gave us problems with driving, but it didn't hurt us as much as open threes."

Noted three-point snipers Rihards Kuksiks, Derek Glasser and Abbott went a combined 0-for-14 from three-point land, and as the Sun Devils saw the Cal lead climb and climb, more and more of their treys found nothing but iron.

Arizona State head coach Herb Sendek turned to his bench early and often in an attempt to find any mismatch he could, and while he got 16 points from his reserves, the Sun Devils had only one scorer reach double digits: senior guard Jerren Shipp, who tallied 10.

"Shipp really surprised us tonight, my former teammate from Fairfax, that was a little unexpected," Boykin said. "His play early really hurt us as well, so containing him a little more in the second half was huge for us."

Down low, the Bears played physical, but smart, as the officiating crew let the two squads go at it without calling many fouls.

"The officials, to their credit, actually let everybody play, and they weren't going to make a lot of calls one way or the other, and I don't think it was an advantage one way or the other," Montgomery said. "It was going to have to be a foul that affected something, and I think everybody on both teams adjusted to that."

The fouls that were called went Cal's way, and the Bears capitalized, sinking 8-of-11 from the charity stripe while Arizona State went just 1-for-6.

"We didn't convert when we had opportunities like we needed to," Sendek said. "We missed free throws and we missed shots at the basket and we didn't have that margin for error."

As the clock wound down, Cal went on an 18-4 run to seal the deal, allowing the crowd to put a blue and gold bow on Montgomery's biggest 63rd birthday present.

"They played with great focus, defensively, in the second half," Montgomery said. "I think that what contributed to it a little bit was that they started to miss some, and when they started to miss some, it gave us some reinforcement for working that hard, and that's critical."

Making History
This title marks only the fourth conference title for Cal in the three major-sports (baseball, basketball and football) in the past 50 years. Of the other three, two have been shared. If the Bears win next week at Stanford, or if Arizona State loses at home against either USC or UCLA, Cal can bring home the first outright major-sport conference title since the Bears baseball team captured the 1960 Athletic Associates of Western Universities (AAWU) crown.

"It means a lot, right now, for our fans, for us," Boykin said. "Last year, being the ninth-place preseason pick, I think we've come a long way, and we've grown a lot through adversity. It's something that I know I'll appreciate more and more as the years go on, but right now, we just want to accomplish all that we can potentially accomplish here."

Senior Citizens
Cal's senior class of Boykin, Robertson, Randle, Christopher and Nikola Knezevic played a combined 145 minutes and scored 48 of the Bears' 62 points. Seniors pulled down 22 of Cal's 33 boards.

"It's very pleasing to see this group of seniors grow like they have, together," Montgomery said. "It hasn't always been all-for-one, one-for-all, but boy, I'll tell you, down the stretch, they've really come together and played to win. If we can play like this, we're pretty good."

Knezevic, though he only clocked one minute of playing time, was on the floor as time expired and raised his arms triumphantly into the air.

"When you have something there in front of you like that, with the emotion of Senior Day, you could see Nikola down there after the game, crying, because it meant so much to him," Montgomery said. "Things like that, that's what makes it all worth it."

But while the elder statesmen got the most attention, they couldn't have succeeded without the clutch contributions-both on the stat sheet and off-of sophomore forward Omondi Amoke and sophomore guard Jorge Gutierrez.

"Omondi coming out at the beginning of the second half and getting two early baskets, that was huge for us, and Jorge just being fearless," Boykin said.

Just over eight minutes into the second half, Gutierrez provided a huge emotional lift for both the team and the crowd with a huge slam dunk to give the Bears a five-point lead.

"He went down the middle, and I thought he was going to lay it up, but he dunked it," Boykin said through an ear-to-ear smile. "And, he had some nice assists. When he plays like that, when you have players like that step up in a game like this, there's no stopping us."

Net Gain
Asked after the game what he would do with his piece of the championship netting, Randle said without hesitation that it would go to his mother, Zsa-Zsa Miller. Boykin, however, was a bit more playful.

"I don't know, EBAY? Nah, I'm just playing," Boykin joked.

Inside the Numbers
The Bears tallied 17 assists on the afternoon and just six turnovers, while the Sun Devils accounted for just seven assists and turned the ball over eight times … Five Cal players posted multiple helpers, while just two Arizona State players checked in with more than one assist … Cal outscored Arizona State in the paint by the tally of 34-26, with 18 of those coming in the second half.



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