BERKELEY — Cal was desperate for a signature victory that could set the tone for the stretch drive, and in front of a national television audience and rare sellout crowd, they finally found it.
Defense and Jordan Mathews was written all over it.
In a matchup of preseason Pac-12 co-favorites, Cal lived up to the hype in a 74-73 victory over No. 12 Arizona at Haas Pavilion that heightened its chances for an NCAA Tournament berth. The Bears are one of several teams with 4-3 records in a highly competitive conference, and the victory was greeted by students storming through security guards to celebrate with the players on the court.
“It’s a huge win for us,” said Mathews, who scored a season-high 28 points, including a half-dozen 3-pointers. “Our young guys stepped up and made huge plays down the stretch. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“Great win for our program,” coach Cuonzo Martin agreed. “Probably the best offensive team that we’ve faced this far.”
Cal (14-6) is off to a 13-0 start at home, its best since the 2011-12 season, when the Bears won their first 14 games in Berkeley en route to a 17-1 record there.
Each team was without a high-scoring guard who had a broken right hand — Arizona’s Allonzo Trier and Cal’s Tyrone Wallace.
In Wallace’s absence, Mathews has been called on to play an expanded role on and off the court.
“Coach just said, ‘Stay ready,’ ” Mathews said. “He said that he needed me to make shots and lead the young guys. That’s my role, and I was able to do that tonight.”
The victory didn’t come easily, as two Cal bugaboos nearly prevented it — turnovers and missed free throws.
Arizona (16-4, 4-3) trailed 60-51 before going on a 22-13 run to pull even in the final minute. Kadeem Allen stripped Sam Singer of the ball and scored on a layup to tie the score at 73-all.
Cal’s Jaylen Brown (15 points) was fouled on the next possession, but the freshman could only split two free throws with 18 seconds on the clock. Then Gabe York (team-high 15 points) drove to the basket and missed a floater over two Bears defenders.
Former Cal star quarterbacks Jared Goff and Joe Kapp, A’s manager Bob Melvin, Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton and several NBA scouts were on hand.
“Great turnout,” Mathews said of the first home sellout of the season. “I couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Arizona entered the game on a tear at the offensive end. In its first six games of conference play, it had averages of 89.8 points and 16.3 assists per game as well as .518 field goal and .485 3-point field goal percentages, easily the best such start in Sean Miller’s seven seasons as head coach.
But defense has been the one constant for Martin’s team this season, and it was able to hold its own against a more experienced front line especially in the second half.
Now, Cal has a chance to meet expectations the next six weeks.