Berkeley — Matt Bradley’s return after an ankle injury that held him out for the last three weeks gave the California Golden Bears a much-needed spark in Saturday night’s contest against USC, but it wasn’t quite enough to stop freshman sensation Evan Mobley and the USC Trojans, who left Haas Pavilion with a 76-68 victory.
The junior from San Bernardino checked in with his team down eight less than four minutes into the game, scored his first points on a long jumper six minutes later and helped dig the hosts out of an early hole, capping off a 19-7 run with a 3-pointer to give the Bears their first lead with 5:19 left in the half.
“I thought under the circumstances, he did a really nice job,” head coach Mark Fox said of Bradley, who scored 11 off the bench. “He was out of rhythm, but he competed hard and it was nice to have him back.”
Bradley’s return helped inject life into a game that transformed from a potential blowout into a seesaw affair with 20 lead changes, one that finally tilted in the Trojans’ favor with eight minutes left as Ethan Anderson scored six straight points for USC (12-3, 6-2 Pac-12) to give his team a 61-59 lead. A key technical foul on Andre Kelly a minute and a half later squashed any momentum for the hosts as the junior gave Isaiah Mobley, Evan’s older brother, an extra shove after the whistle.
Even as Santa Clara transfer Tahj Eaddy made just one of two free throws to give the Trojans a 64-61 lead and the visitors were unable to score on the ensuing possession, the foul still marked a significant shift in momentum as it started a Cal scoring drought that lasted until Bradley scored with 3:28 remaining to cut it to 66-63.
“That was a costly play,” Fox said of Kelly’s miscue. “It cost us two points and it cost us the ball. Andre knows he needs to keep his poise better, and we have to play through our frustrations.”
California (7-10, 2-8) would get within two on a Ryan Betley wing 3-pointer to answer two more free throws by Evan Mobley, but the Bears would enter another prolonged drought after Betley’s shot, going 2:34 until another Betley basket. In that span, the Mobley brothers would combine for four more points as Evan made two free throws and Isaiah delivered a punch to the gut off an offensive rebound with a turnaround jumper to put USC up six.
Eaddy and Evan Mobley fittingly finished the game off with more free throws, with the seven-foot Mobley, who looked every bit the part of a five-star recruit, finishing 12-for-15 at the line en route to scoring a game-high 25 points. He shot 6-of-13 from the floor, even knocking down a 3-pointer, and grabbed eight rebounds, second only to his older brother’s 10.
“He’s a once-in-a-decade talent,” Fox said. “He doesn’t have three or four inches of reach on our players, he probably has eight to 10.”
Aside from Mobley and Eaddy, who scored 12 of his 18 in the first half, it was a night dominated by key performances by bench players. Bradley, who was cleared to play by medical staff earlier in the day, was joined in double-figures by Joel Brown, who had a career-high 15, and Anderson had 11 for USC. Grant Anticevich was the lone Cal starter in double-figures, finishing with 15. Brown, a sophomore from Canada who stands at just 6-foot-2, was able to get to the hoop repeatedly as Kelly and D.J. Thorpe helped cut the younger Mobley off from the lane. Even with Mobley’s 7-foot-5 wingspan, Cal’s bigs were able to limit him to just two blocks.
“They allowed me to penetrate for others and create shots,” Brown said.
Both Brown and Fox shared the same postgame sentiment after finally playing with a full team for the first time all season, staying optimistic even after a second straight close loss to an in-state rival.
“Reflecting back on the last two games, we’re getting there,” Brown said. “We just need to do a better job of executing towards the end and finishing strong. We’ve got to keep learning from these losses.”
Both teams shot exactly 24-of-58 from the field and made seven three pointers apiece, but USC’s 21-of-27 performance at the line and 42-31 rebounding advantage, fueled by the Mobley brothers, ultimately made the difference.
The Golden Bears are scheduled to return to action next Thursday with an 8 p.m. visit to Arizona State (4-7, 1-4).