Editor's Note: Cal will face Syracuse, who pounded Montana 81-34, Saturday night at 6:40 PT at HP Pavilion in San Jose.
SAN JOSE -- Cal, whose season seemed primed to spin out of control when coach Mike Montgomery shockingly pushed star player Allen Crabbe in the chest on Feb. 17, is instead advancing in the Big Dance.
The No. 12-seeded Golden Bears upended No. 5 UNLV, 64-61, in an East Regional second-round game at HP Pavilion Thursday.
"We played really hard," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery, "which was something that we have done off and on, not all the time, but we played really hard."
Cal, which had the good fortune of playing less than 50 miles from campus despite being such a low seed, made itself at home in improving to 21-11 and flummoxing UNLV with a 2-3 zone defense. In fact, Montgomery said it was the most zone defense he had employed since he coached at Montana, back in the mid-1980s.
"We worked on zone all week long," insisted UNLV coach Dave Rice. "They were aggressive in the zone and we just didn't make enough plays against that zone. Part of the problem was we didn't get enough stops in various points in the game to get out in transition to get enough easy baskets."
Crabbe had a game-high 19 points and added eight rebounds and five assists, while junior point guard Justin Cobbs added 13 points and six assists. Reserve forward Robert Thurman had 12 points on six-of-six shooting and scored eight straight points for Cal at one point, all on dunks.
UNLV, meanwhile, ended its season with a record of 25-10 and its fourth straight opening-game loss in the NCAA tournament.
The Rebels shot just 32.2 percent from the field, 1 of 9 from beyond the three-point arc in the second half. Freshman forward Anthony Bennett had a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds while sophomore guard Bryce Dejean-Jones also scored 15 points, on 5-15 shooting.
Cal jumped to a 7-0 lead but had to endure leading scorer Allen Crabbe picking up two early fouls as he played 11 foul-free minutes before the half.
Late in the first half, with UNLV leading by three points, Rebels forward Anthony Bennett was called for a flagrant-1 foul on a driving Tyrone Wallace, who fell to the ground in a heap. Wallace missed the first free-throw attempt, banked in the second, and on the ensuing inbound, David Kravish nailed a jumper to tie the score at 28-28.
Indeed, a 13-3 Bears run from late in the first half to early in the second half turned a 28-24 UNLV lead into a 37-31 Bears advantage.
"We told ourselves before we went out, the first five minutes were going to be the most important starting off the half," Crabbe said. "I felt like we really took them out of their rhythm in our zone. We scrambled when we weren't in the right place at the right time, and we helped each other out big on the defensive side."
Then, after UNLV tied the game at 37-all, the Rebels went cold, going 11:30 without a field goal and missing 16 straight shots. By the time the drought ended, Cal led 52-46.
"I feel the second half we weren't doing the things in the first half we did, made us successful," said Rebels senior point guard Anthony Marshall, who was 1-for-5 from the field. "Penetrating the ball, driving and kicking of (for) three points. And they defended well in the second half.
"So give credit to them."
The Bears would eventually lead by seven, 60-53, with 44 seconds remaining but problems at the free-throw line would allow UNLV to climb within one with seven seconds to play.