BERKELEY — Though Cal's size, athleticism and expectations were dramatically diminished when DeVon Hardin was sidelined last month, that's precisely when the Golden Bears became Ben Braun's kind of team.

Not that Braun doesn't want Hardin, his 6-foot-11 center, owning the paint. But losing Hardin, six weeks after 7-foot Jordan Wilkes went down in a preseason practice, shoved Cal toward underdog status.

And Braun loves an underdog, especially when it's his underdog. And even more when it realizes it's an underdog.

The Bears know it all too well. Braun spent Friday reinforcing the notion, and his charges offered an emphatic response Saturday afternoon at Haas Pavilion.

Having lost to Thursday night Washington State and desperate to avoid back-to-back Pacific-10 Conference home losses, Cal ratcheted up the intensity and kept ratcheting until it cranked out a 77-69 overtime victory.

"Effort, definitely effort," senior guard Ayinde Ubaka said by way of instant analysis. "And that's what coach Braun was preaching.

"We don't have the most talent in this league."

Braun's greatest asset as a coach may be his ability to push a physically lacking squad to its potential. He has a way of reaching the adequate player and helping him visualize the other side of perspiration andteamwork.

The losses of Hardin and Wilkes deflated a bit of ego from these Bears, leaving them, more than ever, a captive audience to Braun's message. Everyone seemed to have heard, notably 6-11 freshman Ryan Anderson, who finished with a game-high 14 rebounds, and sophomore wing Theo Robertson, who drilled three 3-pointers and crashed the boards for eight rebounds.

And if they hadn't gotten the message, still didn't understand what they have to do have a chance at winning, Ubaka is willing to echo his coach.

"DeVon is a great player; he brings a lot to the team," said Ubaka, the Oakland High product who scored six of Cal's eight points in overtime. "We're a lot smaller inside, but we can still play great defense. Ryan still gives us great post play, but the rest of us have to do our part.

"We know we have to fight extra hard. Everybody has counted us out, so we kind of have a chip on our shoulder."

If the chip wasn't apparent Thursday, it couldn't be missed Saturday. For the first time in the six games since Hardin left the lineup Dec.19, the Bears outrebounded an opponent. And not just any opponent. The Huskies, with their imposing front line, had won the rebounding battle in all 16 of their previous games.

"I'm particularly pleased because we did something nobody has done against Washington," Braun said of his team's 47-36 edge on the boards.

Given the weapons Braun has at his disposal, don't expect many similar proclamations this season.

Cal surely is undersized and certainly not among the three most talented teams in the Pac-10. Then there is the assumption that, assuming everyone else stays relatively healthy, the Bears will start one or two freshmen.

They started two, Anderson and 6-5 wing Patrick Christopher, on Saturday. Point guard Jerome Randle and post man Taylor Harrison came off the bench. The four freshmen combined for 28 points, 21 rebounds, six assists and three steals — enough to help them overcome their 8-of-25 shooting.

The kids who couldn't shoot straight were only slightly worse than the rest of the Bears, who shot 17-for-41, resulting in an overall 38 percent.

But the team that leaves more sweat than its opponent often gets rewarded. That's precisely what happened.

"We answered every punch they threw," Braun said.

"Cal just came out and outworked us," Washington Lorenzo Romar said. "That was the difference in the game."

That, too, is one of Braun's most consistent messages. His best teams, aside from squad he inherited from Todd Bozeman and led to the Sweet Sixteen in 1997, have been those least heralded. Those relying more on collective effort than sheer talent.

The 1998-99 team, led by guards Geno Carlisle and Thomas Kilgore, along with a sophomore named Sean Lampley, finished 22-11 and won the NIT. Starting two freshmen and two sophomores the following season, Braun prodded the Bears to the NIT quarterfinal round. 

Cal won 22 games in 2001-02 and 23 the next season — without anyone destined for a meaningful NBA career. With, instead, a nucleus of solid players who understood how they had to play to be successful.

With Leon Powe, a definite NBA prospect, on the roster last season, the anticipation of March was automatic. The Bears bounced around a bit, offsetting impressive wins with inexplicable losses to teams like Eastern Michigan and Oregon State, and the quick exit from the NCAA tournament.

These Bears, after losing Wilkes and Hardin, are not saddled with such expectations. They are what they are, a little team capable of winning big — as long as they bring every ounce of fight.

"It was about grit today," Braun said. "That's how we have to play."

He then smiled a satisfied smile. Not at all because of what his team is missing but because of what it may have learned about itself.

Monte Poole can be reached at (510) 208-6461 or by e-mail at

mpoole@angnewspapers.com