SALT LAKE CITY -- The Cal Bears are hoping it was a season-changing performance.
Cal forced 15 turnovers in the first half, built a double-digit lead and held on for a 62-57 victory over Utah in front of 8,880 fans at the Huntsman Center on Thursday night. The Bears (11-7, 3-3 Pac-12) have been frustrated, losing four of their previous six games before Thursday, and took out their aggression on a sloppy Utah team.
"I think we really, really have been doing some soul-searching and we were ready to get back on track," said guard Brandon Smith, who returned after a six-game absence because of a concussion he sustained against Prairie View A&M on Dec. 22. "I'm hoping that tonight is the brand of basketball we continue to play through the rest of conference because we're capable of bringing that every night."
The Bears showed they're capable of playing a stifling brand of defense. They recorded a whopping 14 steals in the first half. Cal seemed to be sitting in Utah's huddles, as the Bears were beating the Utes to their spots, making steals and recording easy baskets early in the contest.
"I think it kind of shocked them that we came out with that kind of intensity," Smith said. "I think looking at our previous conference games, we haven't brought that level of aggressiveness on defense."
The Bears took control early. They overcame an icy start during which they missed eight of their first nine shots. Allen Crabbe helped spark a 13-0 run, scoring on three straight possessions with two 3-pointers. Cal made 12 of its last 18 shots in the first half.
Crabbe broke out of a mini-slump, leading the Bears with 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting. It was the 10th time this season he's scored at least 20 points. Tyrone Wallace also played well, contributing 12 points and eight assists.
"Finally," Crabbe said. "It seems like the last couple of games I really couldn't get into a rhythm. It felt good to just keep shooting. Once the first one went in, I got confident and kept shooting some more."
It was mostly smooth sailing for Cal before it let Utah gradually creep back into the game. Utes center Jason Washburn made a 3-pointer -- just his second of the season -- to get Utah within 58-55 with 53 seconds remaining. On Cal's next possession, David Kravish rebounded his own miss and passed to Crabbe, who was fouled and sank two free throws to ice the game with 17 seconds left.
"I think that kind of showed a little bit of toughness," Smith said of the Bears being able to pull out the victory in the final minutes.
The Bears got a nice boost from Smith. He didn't put up huge numbers -- three points, three assists, three rebounds and one steal -- but his experience and intelligence paid off for Cal.
"You got to give the guy huge kudos," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. "He's been out for a month with a concussion, and the first time he gets the chance to take a charge, he doesn't even hesitate. He steps right up and takes it. That shows me some guts."