In the days leading up to Cal's can't-afford-to-lose game against Arizona on Thursday evening, coach Mike Montgomery preached the virtues of a fast start for his team.

Little did he know the Bears would need two of them.

Cal, aspiring to its first conference basketball championship in 50 years, blew out to a 24-point lead in the first 13:38 of Thursday's game. The Bears stepped so lively that Montgomery found himself in the unusual position of having nothing to complain about. So he turned his attention to the referees with all the enthusiasm he could muster. And when he puts his mind to it, he can be a pretty enthusiastic fellow.

All in all it was a rocking good show until Arizona woke up. By halftime, the Cal lead had been halved, its momentum blunted. The Bears were still up by a dozen, but they needed to reassert themselves.

Good news for history buffs. Cal outscored Arizona 18-9 to open the second half, a barrage that featured a trilogy of 3-pointers by pocket point guard Jerome Randle, each longer than the one before. From there the Bears eased to a 95-71 win, protected their half-game lead in the Pac-10 and set up Saturday's visit from second-place Arizona State.

"It's all right there in front of us," Montgomery said. "There's no reason not to leave it all on the floor."


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"I think we'll be fired up," forward Theo Robertson said. "It's a big game. Everything that we worked for is on the line. I know guys will be ready to play."

They sure were Thursday night. The Bears hit the ground flying, a noteworthy development for two reasons. One, they were doomed by a slow start in their loss at Arizona. And two, Haas Pavilion didn't exactly have the feel of a madhouse at tipoff.

Blame the early TV start for part of that. A sizable portion of what would become a crowd of 10,545 was inching its way through the evening commute when the ball went up shortly after 6 o'clock. But that's the price you pay when you invite ESPN to the party. It's a price Montgomery questioned Tuesday, when he wondered aloud which was more important — catering to your local ticket-buyers or to potential couch potatoes on the East Coast.

And let's be brutally honest here. Cal's special silver uniforms (with white numbers), the upshot of a preposterous marketing opportunity, didn't help. That's right — silver and white for a school so identified with its colors that its fans substitute "blue!" and "gold!" for lyrics during the national anthem. Maybe for Saturday's game the Bears can wear red and white in honor of the Canadian Olympic hockey team.

By game's end, however, the full crowd was roaring its approval — for Randle, who scored 15 of his 24 points in the second half; for Patrick Christopher and his 14 supremely athletic points; for Jamal Boykin and his 20 points and 10 rebounds; and for Nikola Knezevic, a late-game substitution, who scored a transition layup after a slow-motion behind-the-back dribble.

The happy noise echoed off the walls and into corridors, where two lines of autograph-seeking fans were waiting for the Cal players to exit the floor. It's difficult to imagine how things could get any better than that.

"Well, we've got something to play for," Montgomery said. "I thought the kids did a really good job. We executed well. We had 19 assists against 11 turnovers, which is pretty good stuff."

"It's a great feeling," Randle said. "I feel it. I'm sure everybody else feels what we can do in the next couple days."

What the Bears can do Saturday, when the air will be thick with the emotion of Senior Day, is clinch a tie for the conference title. Of course, they could lose and fall out of the Pac-10 lead with just one game left on their conference schedule.

We trust you won't be surprised to learn that they're focusing on the former and what a championship would mean.

"You hear that a lot about football and basketball at Cal," Montgomery said, "that they haven't won a championship in a lot of years. It's like anything else, (if you win) then you don't have to listen to that anymore. It's still up for grabs. But we're in a pretty good spot."

Just a couple more fast starts from a rip-roaring finish.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.