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February 26, 2014
Payback not No. 3 Arizona's primary focus vs. Cal
The billing for Wednesday night's contest between California and third-ranked Arizona is obvious. The Bears were the first team to defeat the then-No. 1 Wildcats, blemishing the 21-0 start to the season.
The 60-58 loss - decided on Justin Cobbs' game-winner with 0.9 seconds remaining - also served as the start to the second chapter of UA's season. A little more than two minutes into the contest, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that took away some size in the frontcourt and made the Wildcats (25-2, 12-2 Pac-12 Conference) a little more vulnerable.
While head coach Sean Miller said his team team lost a bit of chemistry and had to adjust on the fly, he was quick to point out that the Bears (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12) deserve credit for pulling out the victory.
"On that night, they were better than we were," Miller said.
Tipoff of the rematch is scheduled for 7 p.m. at McKale Center.
Arizona has since made two changes to its starting lineup. After turning to top sixth man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in the first three games following Ashley's injury, Miller swapped in Gabe York last week to space the floor and UA responded with a Rocky Mountain sweep over Utah and Colorado.
York scored 15 points, his most in three months, against the Utes and then pulled down a career-high 10 rebounds against the Buffaloes.
The offense made a significant jump, highlighted by the 60.3 percent shooting against CU - including a blistering 22-of-26 display in the second half of the 88-61 victory.
"They've made an adjustment with their personnel and gone small, which seems to be working a little bit better now," Bears head coach Mike Montgomery said.
Among those who returned to form last week was Nick Johnson, whose recent slide started with a 1-of-14 performance in the loss at Cal. The slump lasted four games as the junior shot just 25 percent in that stretch.
But Johnson made 12 of 25 shots and scored 35 points over the two victories last week. He also added six assists and five rebounds against the Buffaloes.
Looking back, Johnson said the loss to the the Bears was an "all-around tough game," but noted that the lineup shuffle that night cannot go unnoticed.
Aaron Gordon also was among those who struggled in the first contest, missing 10 of 14 shots. The freshman is now coming off a a career-high 23 points on 10-of-13 shooting in his last contest.
"They're the first team to beat us this year, so there's a little bit more excitement," Johnson said. "I felt like the way they beat us, we weren't full-handed. We didn't have time to adjust to Brandon's injury. Now, it might be a little bit different.
"Over the past week or so, we're really starting to feel comfortable on offense."
While the first-place Wildcats have their sights on locking up at least a share of the league's regular-season title, the Bears are in a tie with Stanford for third - one game behind second-place UCLA.
Fifth-place Colorado is just one-half game behind, and the top four teams receive a first-round bye at next month's Pac-12 tournament in Las Vegas.
Cal has its final two road games of the season at the Arizona schools this week before finishing up at home against Utah and Colorado. The Bears are 5-2 on the road in Pac-12 play.
"We seem to be a little bit more relaxed on the road," Montgomery said. "I don't know that we're playing better. A lot depends on match-ups, who we're playing.
"Although, we have had certainly some success."
Cal will have a different look than the one UA faced in the first meeting. Ricky Kreklow, who has appeared in just 16 games because of a broken hand, has played in the last five games.
The guard has started the last four, averaging 7.3 points on 37 percent shooting in that span. Last week in a split against UCLA and USC, Kreklow made a combined 6 of 10 shots.
"He gives us a guy that plays hard, understands the game, a little bit fearless in there," Montgomery said of the fourth-year junior. "Rick is not afraid to mix it up and he can provide a lot of different match-ups for us."
The Wildcats will be looking to build off their recent momentum as the postseason draws closer, and avenging the loss to the program that knocked them off the top of the national polls is not among their priorities.
"We have to play well. We have to be ready to go, and I think that's our focus," Miller said.