Cal zone thwarts Bennett, UNLV

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sun Tzu, surely laboring over his NCAA tournament bracket, once observed that "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious."

Mike Montgomery has been coaching basketball in some form or fashion since 1974. He's seen a lot of things. And he knows sometimes you have to surrender to win.

He did that against UNLV in the second round of the East Regional at HP Pavilion.

Montgomery is mostly a man-to-man coach. But he's run more zone this season, particularly late in the season. Further, he saw what Running Rebels meaty super-frosh Anthony Bennett did to his Bears' man defense in December. Bennett trashed it, scoring 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. All of that counted in a last-second, one-point loss in Berkeley.

So in the rematch, Montgomery ran a zone. It worked. The Bears held Bennett to 4-of-11 shooting, and UNLV as a whole to 32.2 percent from the field in a 64-61 victory that was that close only because Cal was awful from the free throw line down the stretch.

"I think the zone bothered them," Montgomery said.

It did, though things got tense at the end.

Cal held a seemingly safe 60-53 lead with 47 seconds left, but it then decided to make just four of its next 10 free throws, including missing the front end of two 1-and-1s. That was not good. It gave UNLV an opening that it almost slipped through.

Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe, while not exempt from the late-game bumbles, nonetheless led the way, scoring a game-high 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds. He also added four assists and two steals for the 12th-seeded Bears (21-11). In his battle of team stars with Bennett, who scored a quiet 15 points with 11 boards, Crabbe was victorious in round two.

Cal started both halves fast, jumping to a 7-0 lead to start the game and opening up with a 9-3 run in the second half. Neither team built a double-digit advantage, but Cal was up by nine with 6:57 remaining.

Justin Cobbs, Robin to Crabbe's Batman, played one of his worst games of the season in the first matchup with UNLV. He scored 13 points and dished six assists this go-around, but his hitting 3-of-3 from 3-point range was crucial for the Bears' offense. Another offensive key: Forward Robert Thurman. The senior averaged just 4.5 points per game this year, but scored 12 in 19 minutes against the fifth-seeded Rebels (25-10). All six field goals were dunks.

UNLV hit just 1-of-9 3-pointers in the second half after a fast start from long range. Montgomery pointed out that he would have abandoned the zone if the Rebels had stayed hot from behind the arc.

UNLV becomes just the third team to lose four consecutive games in the round of 64 as the better seed, joining Clemson (four games from 1998 to 2010) and BYU (four from 1995 to 2009). The Mountain West is now 5-29 in the NCAA tournament against the Power 6 conferences.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 improves to 3-0 in this year's tourney, with Colorado and UCLA yet to play. Perhaps the much-maligned conference deserved less maligning?

"It shows you that our conference is tough, top to bottom," Cobbs said. "Maybe the bad press we were getting before wasn't true."

Said Montgomery, "It's the only thing you can do to prove you're a good conference."

That would be winning. While the Bears' effort wasn't always pretty, the end result is a tournament victory, which always is. That probably makes any residual pain from a last-second home loss to UNLV in December disappear.