LAS VEGAS (AP) — The California Bears were embarrassed the last time they played Utah, a 30-point loss that put a dent in their NCAA Tournament aspirations.
Using that loss as motivation, the Bears got a little payback and may have pushed their season back toward the NCAA bubble, and in so doing, put any Utah thoughts of an NCAA Tournament invitation on hold.
Cal (21-11) led by 11 with 2:17 left, but Utah (20-11) charged back, pulling to 73-72 with 29 seconds left. Bird followed with a hard drive and was fouled, but Kyle Kuzma hit a 3-pointer to make it a one-point game again.
Bird hit two free throws and Utah’s Sedrick Barefield missed a wild 3-pointer at the buzzer, sending the Bears charging from their bench.
Charlie Moore added 21 points for fifth-seeded Cal, which moves on to play No. 5 and top-seeded Oregon in Friday’s semifinals — another game that could be a big boost to the Bears’ NCAA hopes.
“If you ask me, I think we’ve done enough when you’re talking about a league that has three top, maybe five or six teams in the country,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said. “No other league, I don’t think in America can say that. They’re very talented teams. You have 21 wins in the Pac-12.”
Utah came to life after falling behind by 11 in the second half, shot 51 percent from the floor and had a 38-24 advantage in the paint, yet still couldn’t finish off what would have been a good win for its NCAA Tournament resume.
Kuzma had 23 points to lead the fourth-seeded Utes.
“I felt like we did a good job moving the basketball,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “We got some open looks. At the end of the day, some of those open looks need to go down. We caught a bit more fire in the second half and woke up.”
Both teams entered the Pac-12 Tournament likely needing a decent run to have a shot at making the NCAA Tournament.
Utah put a big dent in Cal’s chances with a 30-point win on March 2, part of five losses in six games to close the season by the Bears. The Utes closed the regular season with three straight wins and earned a bye in the conference tournament.
Cal set up the bubble match-up by outlasting Oregon State in the opening round.
Utah beat Cal by two in overtime in the first meeting during the regular season and the tournament game played out more like that one, neither team able to get much separation in the first half.
Kuzma had 13 points, but Utah scored 12 on eight offensive rebounds to it 30-all at halftime.
Cal made five of its first nine shots in the second half and did a better job of containing Kuzma, building the lead 44-35 in the opening four minutes.
The Bears continued to keep Utah at arm’s length, going up 57-47 on Bird’s 3-pointer from the wing, their 10th made basket in 17 second-half shots.
Utah stormed back in the closing minutes behind Kuzma, who hit a pair of 3-pointers in the final 67 seconds.
“The biggest difference was within ourselves,” Utah forward David Collette said. “I don’t think we played with as much energy as we did that (first) game. You know, it started off slow and we didn’t have enough energy to begin with.”
Cal has taken two solid steps toward the NCAA Tournament and can take a big one Friday if it can knock off Oregon in the semifinals.
Utah will have to sweat out selection Sunday to see if it will be among the 68 teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Utah was the Pac-12’s top team in rebounding margin at 7.4, but had trouble keeping the Bears off the glass. California had a 33-25 advantage overall and 12-6 on the offensive boards.
“We had some breakdowns in our pick-and-roll early in the first half and then we were gambling a number of times, trying to steal passes,” Krystkowiak said. “We didn’t stay solid and on that penetration our bigs have to step up, and our guards weren’t in a position to keep their bigs from getting those rebounds.”
Cal plays No. 5 and top-seeded Oregon in Friday’s semifinals
Utah will likely play in the NCAA Tournament or NIT
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