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At USC, Cal lets another chance slip away

LOS ANGELES – The more the results come in from the Pac-10, the harder it is to see more than one bid.

California continues to toss away its chances of being a team respected enough by the selection committee to earn an at-large berth. The Bears let a game slip away Thursday night at USC, losing 66-63 and dropping to 14-8 overall. The Bears are now one of four 6-4 teams tied atop the league standings, including a UCLA team is 11-11.

“It’s very frustrating to know what we’re capable of,’’ said Cal senior wing Patrick Christopher after the game.

Cal had its chances, but Theo Robertson couldn’t convert two free throws (he made one) to tie the game in the final minute. Jerome Randle made some 3s to keep the Bears in play, but they couldn’t make a stop when they needed it most against a USC team that has nothing more to play for than pride and a possible regular-season Pac-10 title.

“If the expectations were low, the players were young and we didn’t have a great coach then it would just be like whatever,’’ Christopher said. “But we have all the pieces to the puzzle. It’s very frustrating. It’s very hard to describe after a loss like this. We had the game. We let it get away after controlling it from the beginning. It was in our hands. It’s really frustrating.’’

Being on the bad side of a 25-0 run and seeing a 30-17 lead turn into a 12-point deficit is no way to build street cred with the committee, let alone the coaches or national media that vote in polls (albeit popularity contests).

Cal’s poor execution at times, which is somewhat astounding for a Mike Montgomery-coached team, continues to be troubling. The Bears had the Trojans down 13 with a chance to step on their throat. But the Bears wilted during a critical stretch and found out that USC is a wee bit tougher.

California let a chance to win at Arizona last Sunday escape too as Nic Wise made the money shot to beat the Bears in the final stanza. That’s two games in a row where Cal should have won and didn’t. At some point the team that was predicted to win the league, nicely position in the top 25, has to actually win a key game, right?

“We’re getting to the point where we’ve got to say that’s enough,’’ Christopher said. “We’re missing the opportunities to be the team that we need to be.’’

Christopher said the Bears’ lack of defensive synergy with each other is costing them dearly. He said his team can shoot with any team in the country – and he’s right when he’s on or when Randle is draining deep 3s. But the sign that Cal is clearly out of sorts is Montgomery needing to go zone in the first half to build the lead. Monty had been much more of a man coach at Stanford befofe going zone this year (coincidentally the same season that UCLA has gone zone in the Pac-10 under man-to-man driven Ben Howland who has conceded he doesn’t have the athletes to go man).

“This has got to end for us,’’ Christopher said. “We’re putting ourselves in a bad position. We’re giving up too many points. We’re turning the ball over and a championship team can’t have that. This has to change.’’

No one should be shocked by a Kevin O’Neill-coached team that never gives up. It’s not in his nature, and it hardly ever reflects the way the Trojans have or will play under him.

The Trojans came out with a purpose in the second half and put a severe dent in the Bears' at-large chances, barring a flurry of wins down the stretch. USC had the best non-conference resume in the Pac-10 for a reason (wins over Saint Mary’s, UNLV and Tennessee) – when the Trojans are defending, they are fundamental and focused and can beat anyone in the league.

It’s a shame the Trojans won’t have a shot to play in the postseason after self-imposed sanctions took them out of the postseason. USC definitely could have been in play for an at-large bid and a real threat to win the Pac-10 tournament.

Cal needs to find a way to get something out of its post and get Jerome Randle some consistent help. Had it not been for his three 3-pointers after the Trojans’ 25-0 run, the Bears might've been run out of the Galen Center.

Something was just awry with this squad. Maybe it was Jorge Gutierrez forgetting a knee brace that a manager had to go fetch at the hotel or maybe it was the third straight road game for the Bears, especially after Sunday's heartbreaking loss in Tucson. But the Bears lost some of their mojo and it took a while to get it back once they realized they were in for a fight.

Watching these two teams play is a microcosm of the Pac-10 this season. There are flashes when you see how good the team could be if it were to play consistently for 40 minutes. The scoring runs, the defensive stops tease you into thinking these teams can win games in March. Whoever emerges and wins this league will not get a decent seed and will have a tough first-round game, but the winner will be capable of at least showing well and winning a game.

The coaches in the Pac-10 still hold out hope that a power six league cannot possibly be denied at least one at-large bid. But as O’Neill said earlier Thursday, the league missed out to make its mark in the non-conference. All that’s left is league play and beating each other up, while great for morale and competitive balance, doesn’t make it more palatable to the selection committee for multiple bids.