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January 15, 2012

Murray sets career-high as Bears roll



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BERKELEY -- Emerson Murray and Alex Rossi have been roommates since the pair came in as part of the California basketball team's 2010 recruiting class. They've sat on Santa's lap, they've lived together, they've struggled together, they've adjusted to college together. On Saturday night, they helped the Bears move into first place, together.

Cal saw five players score in double figures and three set career highs -- Murray among both groups -- as the Bears pummeled visiting Utah to the tune of 81-45, moving into a first-place tie in the Pac-12 with archrival Stanford.

"Emerson's been working really hard on his shot, and he's obviously got a lot more confidence on his ability to shoot the ball, so that part's good," said head coach Mike Montgomery. "He'll play hard. Sometimes, I think the court awareness, when there's only three seconds left on the shot clock, and he went to go for a ball and fouled the guy, but had he known it was pretty much our ball, things like that, but he's gotten more confident, and it's double figures the first time for him. That's good."

On a night where sophomore scorer Allen Crabbe was once again painfully mortal, sophomore guard Murray -- a native of Vancouver, BC, Canada -- shot 4-of-5 from the floor, 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, pulled down five rebounds and dished out two assists in 14 minutes, setting career-highs in points and rebounds.

"I was getting put in really good situations from Justin, Jorge and Allen, just to shoot the ball and make open shots," the ever-humble Canadian said. "I just had to finish the play, and not really start the play."

Guards Jorge Gutierrez and Justin Cobbs chipped in with 17 assists, as Cal (15-4, 5-1 Pac-12) notched 24 helpers on 34 field goals. The Utes (4-12, 1-3) registered six assists to 18 turnovers.

"We were more patient," Montgomery said. "We set better screens, we waited to get people open and we delivered the ball. We made the extra pass on several occasions. Our best performances have come, shooting-percentage-wise, when our assist-to-turnover ratio is higher. Of course, that means we're making shots, which means the pass, you get an assist for it. You don't get one if you don't make them, so it's a little bit misleading, but I think the shots that we got were good shots."

Cobbs' 11 assists were a career high, and the most by a Cal player since Brandon Smith -- still sidelined with post-concussion symptoms - notched 11 against Arizona on Feb. 5, 2011.

"We talked about being patient," Gutierrez said. "I think we were a little more patient tonight, and shots were open, and we were making them."

Murray's roommate and recruiting classmate Rossi -- who had been on the shelf for a year and a half with a sports hernia and continual aggravations from surgery and recovery -- finally made his first appearance in a Cal uniform, much to the delight of his teammates, who know first-hand just how affable the kid from New Trier High in Winetka, Ill., is.

"We had a 35-point lead and Alex, we just thought we'd put him in there and see how he felt," Montgomery said. "I sent Christian [Behrens] over to the bike in anticipation of him going in, just to get him warmed up. I probably should have done something with Rossi. He does have the stretching things that has to do to get himself ready for practice every day, but, he's gotten better every day, and we thought we'd give him a look. His teammates were excited, when he made that shot. It was nice to see."

Rossi has been practicing since about Christmas, but not at full-bore, as he continues to recover from the sports hernia and subsequent surgery that sidelined him all last year and for the nonconference schedule this season.

"He came back after Christmas, and has not been able to go, full-go, so we've kind of broke him in," Montgomery said. "He gets a little more comfortable every day. He's not 100-percent every day."

With three minutes left in the game, Rossi took a pass from Jeff Powers, threw a double-pump fake on his defender and rained down a nothing-but-net jumper for his first career points.

"When he came in and hit that shot, that definitely made everything really good, man," Murray smiled. When asked whether that means Rossi is buying dinner tonight, Murray flashed a grin and said, simply, "Yeah."

Murray and senior guard Gutierrez had to step up on a night where Crabbe -- though he scored 10 points -- was 4-for-10 from the field and 0-for-5 from three, and with Smith on the bench for the third straight game, due to continuing issues following a concussion suffered against Oregon State.

"I've been working hard to get some playing time, and the fact that Brandon is out right now, it obviously means that I have to step up, and hopefully, make some plays," Murray said. "Tonight, I was able to."

Gutierrez shot 7-for-9 from the field and 1-of-1 from three, tallying a game-high 15 points, bouncing back from a dreadful 2-for-17 performance against Colorado. Following that game, Gutierrez, Murray and Cobbs stayed in the gym more than an hour after the final buzzer, still in their game shorts, shooting.

"I was a little frustrated," Gutierrez said of his Thursday-night struggles. "Emerson, Justin and I were working it after the game, and I felt like it was just being patient. Coach talked about it, we talked about it and it was just being patient. I know that my teammates were going to get me the ball for the open shot."

With the Bears leading the Utes 13-7 with 10:21 left in the first half, Cobbs found Murray on the left wing for a wide-open trey, which Murray sank to put Cal on an 8-0 run. That turned into a 14-0 run as the Utes went scoreless from 14:34 to 7:22, and without a field goal until 4:58.

"I've said this all along: when you don't score, you say we didn't shoot it well, and when they don't score, you say we played great defense, but it's a combination," Montgomery said. "You try to take peoples' comfort zone away, you try to make it more difficult for them. As I've said, Utah has had difficulty shooting the ball this year, and that's been their Achilles heel. I think tonight kind of pointed that out, but we got going a little bit, felt pretty confident. I think in some ways, we didn't feel threatened with guys, once we got Watkins contained, and that helped."

On the defensive end of the floor, Gutierrez was back to his pesky self, holding the Utes' Josh Watkins to a hard-fought 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting and 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. With Watkins contained, 6-foot-6 junior forward Dijon Farr and 6-foot-4 junior forward Cedric Martin found it hard to get open looks, going a combined 3-for-5 from the field and combining for just seven points.

Cobbs and Gutierrez held Watkins to just two points in the first half, forcing him to turn the ball over three times before the break.

"Farr and Martin - the two starting wing players - they don't get direct kicks, and they're not creating much for themselves," Montgomery said. "I thought we did a good job on Watkins in the first half, in particular. [He had] two points, ended up turning him over five times, and I think that took the wind out of their sails."

Utah as a team shot 17-for-49 from the field (34.7 percent), and in the first half, shot a dreadful 26.1 percent in the first half, trailing 32-15 at halftime.

Both senior power forward Harper Kamp and sophomore guard Cobbs scored 14 points.

"Justin was very good," Montgomery said. "Justin had good pace. I thought he did a really good job defensively. We felt like Watkins was the key. Watkins has the balls in his hands all the time, and most everything that's created with them, is with Watkins 11 assists, that's good pace, and [Cobbs] was helping his teammates get shots."

With just under 11 minutes left in the game, Watkins once again ran into a tough defensive net, with Kamp plucking the ball from the driving, spinning senior guard, pushing it up the floor for a Murray three to give Cal a 52-27 advantage.

The Bears out-rebounded the Utes 32-22, with a game-high six boards coming from sophomore Richard Solomon. Playing only 13 minutes due to a still-tender foot, Solomon made the most of his time on the floor. During the 14-0 run, Solomon pulled down five rebounds, with four coming on the defensive end.

Notebook
-- With the win, Cal moved to 13-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. The last time the Bears won a baker's dozen in a row in Berkeley was at the start of the 1959-60 season. Dating back to last season, Cal has won the last 16 contests at home, tied for the fourth-longest streak in school history (1953-54). The streak is the longest since the Bears won 17 in a row at home from Feb. 2, 2002 through Feb. 13, 2003.

-- Utah's 34.7 shooting percentage earned the Utes the distinction of becoming the 11th Cal opponent to shoot under 40 percent from the field this season.

-- The 81-54 final score marks the Bears' largest margin of victory in 18 games in the all-time series with Utah. The previous mark was 32 points, in a 95-63 win on Jan. 30, 1954.

-- Gutierrez's 15 points moves him to 33rd on Cal's all-time career scoring list, now with 1,056 points. Next on the list is Larry Friend, who had 1,061 points from 1955-57. Gutierrez's one steal gives him 132 in his career, which ties him for seventh all-time in the school record books.

-- With 14 points for his second straight game, Kamp matched his best back-to-back scoring games of the season. He had previously scored a combined 28 points against Austin Peay and Georgia in November.

-- After the Utes took a 7-6 lead at the 14:34 mark in the first half, the Bears went on an 18-1 run. The Bears held Utah without a field goal for 9:36 during that stretch.

-- The Utes' 15 points in the first half marked the sixth time this season that Cal has held an opponent to less than 20 points in a half, and the third time that the total was 15 points or lower.

-- The Bears hit their first five shots of the second half, and ended the period shooting 19-for-26 (73.1 percent) from the field.

-- Cal did not take its first free throw of the game until Cobbs went to the charity stripe with 11:45 left in the second half.

-- Behrens -- a true freshman -- tied his career-high with four minutes on the floor, scored a career-high four points and pulled down a career-best three boards.


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