TEMPE, Ariz. — When a second straight defeat for No. 25 California seemed probable Saturday night, Tyrone Wallace looked to his coach for a play. Cuonzo Martin barked at him instead.
“You don’t need a play. We’ve been doing this for a long time,” Martin said. “It’s about him making plays, putting pressure on the defense.”
Wallace responded, matching a season high with 24 points and hitting two decisive free throws in the final minute to lead Cal to a 68-65 comeback victory over Arizona State that earned the Golden Bears a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.
Two days after their most crushing defeat of the season to No. 18 Arizona, Cal’s late run gave it a needed boost heading into the conference tournament, where the Bears will be the No. 3 seed.
“You come off a tough loss on Thursday and I thought our guys were mentally drained,” Martin said of the Bears’ blowing an eight-point lead in the final 2 minutes. “Once we settled down and understood what we had to do to win the game, guys made plays.”
Wallace scored 19 points in the second half and grabbed seven rebounds, and Jordan Mathews added 18 points for Cal (22-9, 12-6), which trailed by eight points halfway through the second half before securing the fourth 22-win regular season in school history.
Wallace hit 7 of 11 shots from the field and all eight free throws, including two with 33.9 seconds left to put Cal ahead by four.
Arizona State’s Obinna Oleka couldn’t handle a pass along the sideline on the ensuing possession.
“His shots were falling and his free throws were falling. That’s Tyrone Wallace,” Martin said. “He’s plays aggressive. He’s very assertive.”
The Bears needed Wallace, with Jaylen Brown struggling for a second straight game. The Pac-12’s top freshman scorer had 10 points on 3 of 10 shooting after scoring a season-low five points against Arizona.
Eric Jacobsen scored 20 points and fellow senior Gerry Blakes added 14 for the Sun Devils (15-16, 5-13), who have dropped five of six.
“I thought we gave a winning effort,” said coach Bobby Hurley, who was upset with several calls toward the end of the game.
Returning to the rankings on Monday for the first time since November, the Bears turned sloppy, allowing Arizona go on an 11-0 game-ending run Thursday and failing the match the surging Sun Devils’ intensity early on.
The Sun Devils came in locked into the 11th seed for the conference tourney in Hurley’s uneven first season.
But they impressed with Thursday’s home victory over Stanford, and appeared in control halfway through the second half before fading.
Cal trailed 47-39 before Wallace’s thunderous dunk keyed a 9-0 run that closed with Mathews’ wing 3 with 9:28 left gave the Bears a needed lift.
“Our offense struggled more in the second half than it did in the first and that was the difference,” Hurley said. “The free-throw differential (25 attempts to 11) was also a big difference. . They got to the line. They were fortunate to get to the line.”