SAN JOSE – Players win basketball games, but there are moments when it is important to highlight the performance of the coach, to note when the tactics of one man over another had as much to do with a game's outcome as who made shots, collected assists and grabbed rebounds.
One of those instances came Thursday night at HP Pavilion.
After 12th-seeded Cal’s 64-61 upset of fifth-seeded UNLV, Bears coach Mike Montgomery should have walked to the center of the court and taken a bow. He and his assistants should have received medals, and Rebels coach Dave Rice and his staff should have been forced to stick around and watch in the hopes that they’d learn something.
UNLV was the deeper and more talented team, with (arguably) at least four potential NBA players on its roster. The Rebels should have won running away. Instead, Montgomery and the Bears baffled and baited them, playing almost exclusively in a 2-3 zone for the first time this season, and letting the free-shooting Rebels become their own worst enemy.
There is March Madness, where some good fortune and sterling performances can lift a lower seed to victory. Thursday’s game was none of that. It was a coaching clinic.
“We started out playing man [defense] off a made basket and zone off a miss, but the zone was making them uncomfortable and so we stuck with it,” Cal assistant coach Gregg Gottlieb said. “It is not any different than anyone else’s zone other than maybe Syracuse [who the Bears will face Saturday]. But they are a team that likes to create one-on-one matchups, wants to get in a rhythm, and the zone didn’t let them do that.”
UNLV was in the game in the first half because of some luck connecting on long three-pointers. But after going 5-for-12 from beyond the arc in the first 40 minutes, the Runnin' Rebels went 1-for-8 the rest of the way. For the most part, the Rebels tried to get isolations against the zone, and when it didn’t work, they just tried some more, the basketball equivalent of banging your head against a wall.
The early obsession with long three-pointers marginalized UNLV’s best player, forward Anthony Bennett. In the second half, when the Rebels finally tried to get him the ball consistently, Cal crowded him and, again, Rice didn’t adjust. Contrast that with how Montgomery consistently got good looks for his best player, guard Allen Crabbe, who finished with a game-high 19 points.
“We got Allen some good looks early in the second half and the other players fed off that,” Gottlieb said. As for why UNLV couldn’t do the same for Bennett, Gottlieb said: “Sometimes when you have four guys on the floor who are capable of scoring 20 points like UNLV, that can work against you. Guys get the ball and immediately start looking for their shot and don’t look to get the ball back to Bennett.”
Need further proof that one team was more prepared than the other? Cal outscored UNLV by a combined score of 16-3 to start each half. In other words, coming out of the locker room, when the game plan and adjustments are fresh on the mind, Cal dominated.
“If you believe you are better you can beat somebody,” Montgomery said after the game, as if his team willed its way to victory.