BERKELEY -- Equal doses of defense and Justin Cobbs gave Cal a recipe to finally overcome the Pac-12's last-place team.
Cobbs had 22 points and seven assists and the Bears used a 24-8 finishing rush to pull away from USC 77-64 on Sunday afternoon in front of 9,687 fans at Haas Pavilion.
A month after a stunning road loss to the Trojans, Cal (18-9, 9-5) moved into a tie for third place with Stanford. The Bears have one day of prep before leaving for Tucson, Ariz., where on Wednesday they will face Pac-12 leader Arizona -- the team they knocked from its No. 1 national ranking on Feb. 1.
"We've got to get every one we can," Cal junior Ricky Kreklow said. "It's getting to March. A lot of things can happen."
A lot less might have happened for the Bears in March had they lost again to the Trojans (10-17, 1-13), whose only win since December came at Cal's expense. Cal now remains in the thick of the hunt for a top-four Pac-12 finish and first-round bye in the conference tournament, and an NCAA tournament bid.
"It was a win we had to have. I would have been very disappointed if we didn't," coach Mike Montgomery said. "We're not into quality points, just trying to win games."
USC, playing without suspended top scorer Byron Wesley, led 56-53 with 8 minutes left when the Bears grabbed the game by the throat.
"We've had struggles at home lately," Kreklow said. "It feels good to get one back, especially against a team we gave one up to early in the year."
The Bears got that done by running off 11 straight points, sparked by consecutive drives to the basket by Cobbs.
"We changed what we were doing," Montgomery said. "We spread the court, opened up some driving lanes, and Justin was good at finishing."
The second of his assaults on the basket came after Cobbs noticed the Trojans' defense left the lane unprotected. "They parted the sea," he said of the drive that gave Cal a 58-56 lead with 7:26 left.
Cal, playing a four-guard lineup with forward Richard Solomon benched by foul trouble, continued to attack at both ends. The Bears got eight second-half steals after eight first-half blocks, giving their offense a lift.
"We can't sit back," Montgomery said. "We've got to get up and get into people, force mistakes."
The Trojans had just three turnovers at halftime but coughed up 11 in the second half, leading to 13 Cal points.
"We ratcheted it up on defense and that got us easy buckets," Cobbs said.
There have been few easy baskets recently for Jabari Bird, the highly touted freshman guard from nearby Salesian High. But Bird contributed to the Bears' closing rush by making a reverse layup, then back-to-back 3-pointers to push the lead to 72-60 with 2:26 left.
Bird, who finished with 10 points, had made just 2 of 22 from 3-point range in 13 previous Pac-12 games.
"Jabari had a good week. There was a bounce in his step. Practice was better," Montgomery said. "It's nice to have him back in the mix."
Cal (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12) at Arizona (25-2, 12-2), 6 p.m., ESPN2