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March 10, 2011LOS ANGELES -- If the California men's basketball team had an ideal start in mind, the opening minutes of its quarterfinal might have been it.
The No. 4-seed Golden Bears ran out to a 14-6 lead on Thursday in their first game of the 2011 Pacific Life Pac-10 Basketball Tournament at Staples Center. It helped that it took No. 5-seed USC more than five minutes to score its first points -- coming via a three-pointer by Jio Fontan. As the Trojans began finding their shooting stroke, the Bears floundered, and USC built a 35-27 halftime lead and expanded from there in a 70-56 Trojans' win.
Cal falls to 17-14 and must now hope for a bid to the National Invitation Tournament.
Coach Mike Montgomery is optimistic about his teams postseason chances given the recent optimism surrounding the Pac-10 and the possibility of three or more NCAA Tournament bids.
"I would think that we would be a very strong NIT team," Montgomery said. "What I did tell the guys in the locker room was that we had one hell of a year even with the circumstances that they dealt with. These guys battled and fought. They've grown tremendously as a group and as a team and I want them to start now thinking in terms of where we want to be next year and if the NIT comes along we want to jump on that and use that as a springboard moving forward."
The way Cal started Thursday's game, Montgomery had reason to be hopeful.
The Golden Bears held USC without a field goal for more than five minutes and led 11-3 when true freshman wing Allen Crabbe made a spinning lay-up on a fast break. Cal built the lead to 14-6 when 6-foot-10 freshman Richard Solomon drove baseline and flushed home a dunk and absorbed the contact for a three-point play.
But for all Cal's early success, turnovers and missed shots held them back.
"I felt early on we could have been up 10, 12, 14 points," Montgomery said. "We had the ball exactly where we wanted to get it and we couldn't score. I think that probably weighed on us a little bit."
USC started finding its stroke behind the energy and effectiveness of guards Maurice Jones and Donte Smith and Fontan. The three guards combined for 42 of USC's 70 points.
"One hurt us here and one hurt us at our place," Montgomery said. "They both hurt us tonight."
The Trojans pulled within four, 16-12, on a Smith three-pointer. They finally pulled even at 20 on an Alex Stepheson three-point play. Four straight points by Fontan and a Jones three-pointer gave USC a 27-20 edge. The Trojans maintained their lead, 35-27, at halftime when Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Simmons buried a trey just before the buzzer.
USC led by as many as 18 points in the second half. Cal pulled within 10 midway through but was unable to get any closer.
The Trojans' quickness at the guard positions hurt the Bears as USC managed to penetrate the defense and either get to the hoop for lay-ups or dish out to open shooters. The Trojans made 8-of-17 three-pointers.
"We had trouble keeping their quick guards in front of us, especially in the second half," Montgomery said. "Once they started getting to the basket, they were dropping for scores or kicking for threes."
USC's quickness also helped on defense, where the Trojans hounded Cal into making 16 turnovers.
"We started picking up full court and putting pressure on them," Smith said. "Started getting turnovers and got a couple of charges out there and that kind of threw them off."
Bears guard Jorge Gutierrez -- who came in averaging 14.6 points -- struggled from the start. His stat line reflected his miserable afternoon as the junior shot 2-for-10 for four points with seven turnovers.
"Jorge is such an integral part of what we do. I think sometimes he's his own worst enemy that sometimes when he feels he's not playing very well and makes mistakes he gets down on himself," Montgomery said.
USC center Nikola Vucevic, normally a go-to option for the Trojans, struggled with seven points on 3-of-10 shooting and seven rebounds. He did block three shots. Stepheson made up for Vucevic's struggles with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
"It was our turn to carry him today and our guys did a great job of that," USC coach Kevin O'Neill said.
Crabbe led Cal with 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting. Solomon had 11 points and point guard Brandon Smith added 10.
Both teams came into conference tournament play riding late-season flourishes.
USC won five of its last six Pac-10 games, including a 78-75 win at Cal on Feb. 17. Cal, meanwhile, following a three game losing streak won its last four games, including a 76-72 overtime win over UCLA.