SALT LAKE CITY – When Allen Crabbe plays to his full potential, no defensive scheme known to man can contain him. Crabbe offered the latest proof of those game-changing abilities by turning into a one-man scoring machine against the Utah Utes.
The junior guard scored 23 points on 8-of-15 shooting to lead the California Bears to a 62-57 victory on Thursday night. Crabbe found a rhythm early and he had no trouble finding ways to make the Utah defense pay.
“It seemed like the last couple of games I couldn't get into a rhythm like that,” Crabbe said. “It just felt good to keep shooting. Once the first one went down, I got confidence and kept shooting some more.”
Utah felt the sting of Crabbe's golden shooting touch only a few minutes into the game.
He hit the 3-pointer that put the Bears ahead for good, at 14-11, with 10:23 to go in the first half. Crabbe went on to score two more baskets in the next minute and a half. It fueled a 18-4 run that turned a 11-6 Utes lead into a 24-15 advantage for California.
Crabbe kept it up as the game progressed, coming up with big scoring plays at all the right times. That included back-to-back three-pointers that gave Cal its largest lead at 44-29 with 13:57 left in the game.
It also included a pair of clutch free throws in the final seconds. After Jason Washburn buried a 3-pointer with 58 seconds left to cut the Bears' lead to 58-55, Crabbe drained two free throws with 16.1 seconds left to help California survive the late rally.
It marked the 10th time this season and the 23rd time in his career that Crabbe has scored at least 20 points in a game. The Bears are 7-3 this season when he reaches or eclipses that plateau
Bears coach Mike Montgomery was pleased to see Crabbe get it done. His goal against the Colorado Buffaloes is to make sure Crabbe isn't doing it alone.
“We just got to be a little more patient offensively,” Montgomery said. “We can't rely totally on Allen. But obviously he had it going on, so we were able to get him the ball and he made some shots. We got to get some other people involved. There's no question about that.”
If California can mirror the defensive performance it put together against Utah when it travels to Boulder, it might not matter if anyone else joins Crabbe in putting away tons of shots.
The Bears attacked the Utes with energy and forced their guards into regularly coughing up the ball. They forced 15 turnovers in the first half alone. Fourteen of those were steals and led to 11 points on the other end for California.
Senior guard Brandon Smith characterized that as the best defensive effort for a single half that the team has had all season. And Utah did not know how to handle the aggressiveness.
“It kind of shocked them that we came out that intensity,” Smith said. “Looking at our previous conference games, we haven't brought that level of aggressiveness on defense.”
Montgomery pointed to the first-half defense as being the catalyst for opening up the offense. The Bears made only 2-of-11 shots to open the game. A flurry of steals quickly turned that around and Cal made seven straight baskets to spark the 18-4 run that gave them the lead for good in the first half.
“We were very active in the first half defensively,” Montgomery said. “14 steals for us is pretty good. We did a good job knowing where they were trying to go with the ball. I thought their smaller guards had trouble finding people. We got our hands on a lot of balls and that really made a difference because earlier we were not shooting the ball well.”
One of the highlights of the night for California was seeing Smith return to the court for the first time in six games after being sidelined with a concussion. The senior guard only played 12 minutes but he contributed 3 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists in that limited time.
Smith was not cleared by team doctors to play until Wednesday morning. He didn't have as much energy toward the end of the game as he's accustomed to having in the past, but Smith was excited just to finally do something other than watch from the bench.
“I feel good,” Smith said. “I had a lot of fun tonight. After being gone for an entire month, you're so antsy to get back on the floor and play.”
Montgomery likes the toughness Smith brings to the game when he's out there. It's a quality he thinks lifts the rest of the team.
"Brandon is a really smart player,” Montgomery said. “You got to give the guy huge kudos. He's been out for a month with a concussion and the first time he has a chance to take a charge, he doesn't hesitate. He steps up and takes it. That shows me some guts.