Cal couldn’t stop fouling USC’s Evan Mobley and the freshman 7-footer kept making his free throws.
Then, after missing two with the game on the line, he converted a putback with with 36 seconds left on the way to a career-high 25-point performance.
Mobley — projected as a high NBA draft lottery pick — made 10 of his first 11 free throws and the Trojans held off a competitive effort by the Bears, winning 76-68 at Haas Pavilion on Saturday night.
The game featured the return of Cal’s leading scorer, junior Matt Bradley, who had missed the previous five games with an ankle injury. He entered the game 4 minutes into the action and contributed 11 points.
Cal (7-10, 2-8 Pac-12) lost for the second time in three days against the league’s Los Angeles schools, on the heels of a 61-57 setback to No. 24 UCLA.
The Bears fought back from an early 11-point deficit in this one and pulled with 68-66 when Bradley scored on a drive and Ryan Betley made a 3-pointer with 2:56 left.
But the Bears had no answer defensively for Mobley. starter Andre Kelly and backup D.J. Thorpe both fouled out in the final 3:14 while trying to corral Mobley. Kelly picked up his fourth foul with 5:57 left when he was hit with a technical foul after pushing Isaiah Mobley, who had just fouled him.
USC (12-3, 6-2) outscored the Bears 13-7 the rest of the way and 8-2 over the final 2 minutes.
Mobley finished 6-for-13 from the field and 12-for-15 from the foul line, along with eight rebounds.
Grant Anticevich and Joel Brown each scored 15 points for the Bears, Brown notching a career-high. Bradley shot just 5-for-14 in his return, including 1-for-6 on 3-point attempts.
The second half features 13 lead changes in the first nine minutes.
Cal held its last lead at 57-56 after a layup by Kelly off a feed from Jarred Hyder with 8:33 left.
A driving layup by Ethan Anderson and a fast break bucket by Isaiah White gave USC a 63-59 lead. Two free throws by Evan Mobley inched the Trojans’ margin to 66-61.
USC opened early leads of 11-2 and 15-4, powered by Mobley and Eaddy. Mobley scored eight of the Trojans’ first 13 points — six of them on free throws. But the talented freshman didn’t score again in the half and the Bears regrouped.
Anticevich and Brown each had eight first-half points and Bradley’s first appearance in six games with 16:15 to go in the half energized the Bears and made them more difficult to defend.
He missed his first two shots and had a turnover before nailing an 18-foot pull-up jumper to get Cal within 19-16 with 10:08 to go.
Bradley’s 3-pointer with 5:15 left gave the Bears their first lead of the night, 25-24, and he capped the half by converted a runner with 1 second left, pulling Cal within 35-34 at the break.