Prior to last Tuesday, UC San Diego’s men’s basketball team had never beaten any current members of the Pac-12 Conference. As for their opponents, UC Berkeley, the UCSD Tritons hadn’t even played the Golden Bears since 1985. UCSD hadn’t even won a single road game as a Division I team, going 0–7 away last year. So when Cal opened up a double-digit lead early in the first half, nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
Instead, it was not so golden for the Bears from then on out, as the Tritons closed the first-half lead, blitzed Cal with an 11–0 run midway through the second half to take control of the match, and held on for by far their most significant victory as a Division I squad, 80–67.
Senior forward Toni Rocak led UCSD with a career-high 27 points and 8 rebounds, redshirt sophomore guard Bryce Pope added 18 points, including 4 three-pointers, and the Tritons held the Golden Bears to 34.5% shooting in the second half to their 66.7% to earn the win.
Tuesday’s match was both teams’ season opener, and both squads have a lot to prove coming out of last season. UC Berkeley was 9–20 in 2020, last place in the Pac-12, and third-year coach Mark Fox will need to impress quickly if he wants to keep his job after 2 postseason-less seasons. Meanwhile, UCSD is looking to finally play a normal season of Division I basketball after an abbreviated, cancellation-filled campaign in which they went 7–10 and 4–8 in the Big West.
Rocak opened the scoring with a steal and a dunk off a turnover from Cal guard Joel Brown. But after some back-and-forth play as both teams sought to feel each other out, the Bears charged ahead with a 9–0 run, capped off by a jam from forward Andre Kelly, that put Cal up 18–8 with 12:26 remaining in the first half. The Tritons were finally able to answer as redshirt sophomore forward Jake Kosakowski drilled a fastbreak triple off a steal from freshman forward Francis Nwaokorie, and soon after, a pair of free throws each from Pope and Rocak had UCSD in striking distance down 5 with 8:50 to go.
But Cal once again pushed the lead to double digits, with an 8–2 run consisting solely of paint buckets to go up 28–17 with 6:17 remaining in the half — a lead that would end up being their largest of the game. The Bears still led by 9 with 3:07 to go, when within the span of a minute, Rocak hit a pair of free throws, then redshirt junior forward Matt Gray hit a triple and a fastbreak layup on consecutive possessions to cut the lead to just 2. (The match against Cal was also Gray’s first career start.) For the remainder of the half, UCSD matched Cal punch-for-punch, and the Tritons entered the half down by just 4, 37–33.
The intensity was high coming out of the halftime break, as Cal held on to their tight single-digit lead. With 17:06 to go, Pope converted on a huge four-point play, and on the next Triton possession he knocked down another three-pointer to tie the match at 43. A minute later, a pair of free throws from Nwaokorie gave UCSD their first lead since the first minute of play, 45–43.
Now it was the Tritons’ turn to defend their small lead, but it wouldn’t be long before that advantage began to grow. Up 49–48 with 11:48 remaining, Rocak hit 2 free throws, then knocked down the paint jumper for a 5-point lead. On the next Cal possession, redshirt sophomore guard Jace Roquemore stole the ball on one end of the floor and then drained a three on the other end to put UCSD up 8 with 10:39 to go, 56–48, and force a Cal timeout. But after that timeout, after the Bears’ Kelly missed his shot, Rocak laid it in on the other end to give UCSD a double-digit lead and cap off a game-changing 11 unanswered points.
Unlike the earlier Cal advantage, the Tritons’ lead held steady, aided by free throws from Gray and Nwaokorie. The Bears cut the lead to 7 with 6:55 left, but Pope staved off the threat with his third long-range shot of the afternoon, and Cal wouldn’t get even that close for the remainder of the match. Back-to-back triples from Gray and Pope pushed the Triton lead to 13 with under 2 minutes to go, and Rocak once again hit a pair from the charity stripe with 34 seconds to go to cap off the milestone victory, 80–67.
The name of the game on Tuesday was efficiency, especially in the second half, where UCSD was on fire and UC Berkeley was ice-cold; in the half, the Tritons were 12-of-18 from the field and 7-of-10 from three, while the Bears were 10-of-29 from the field and 2-of-8 from three.
The foul line was also a big player, with UCSD getting 22 points at the stripe, 11 coming from Rocak, and shooting 80.0%. The Tritons also capitalized on the fast break, notching 12 points off the break to just 2 from Cal. Still, there were points for the UCSD squad to improve on, especially on the glass, as they allowed 10 offensive rebounds and 15 second-chance points.
“It just tells you about our potential as a team. We still have a long way to go, and a lot of mistakes we can fix, but our ceiling is extremely high,” said Rocak after the game to UCSD Athletics. “We’re yet to play our best basketball, and we’re all really excited about that.”
Asked about how the team responded to the early deficit, Rocak said, “In those moments it’s easy for players to just try to do their own thing, but we stuck in a group and were unselfish, and great things happened when we shared the basketball.”
While Cal hasn’t been nationally competitive in years, UCSD’s victory is still a milestone for the Triton program, which hadn’t won any of 12 previous meetings against current Pac-12 teams. The Tritons will next take on San Diego Christian College at RIMAC Arena on Tuesday, Nov. 16, then travel to Sacramento to take on California State University, Sacramento on Saturday, Nov. 20.
Image courtesy of UC San Diego Athletics