Cal Overcomes Giant Killers / Bears stave off Tigers' upset bid

1997-03-14 04:00:00 PDT Winston-Salem, N.C. -- Cal walked the NCAA tightrope yesterday and lost its balance once or twice before pulling itself together at the very end to live another day. Up against the nits and gnats that Princeton throws at you, Cal has to be happy with that.

The Bears beat the Tigers 55-52 for their first NCAA Tournament victory since 1993 and will play Villanova at 11:30 a.m PST tomorrow in the second round.

It was the kind of game that built Princeton its reputation and left first- round NCAA opponents in shreds: Cal was down by six at the half and looked like defending champ UCLA did last year against an array of backdoor lay-ups and 3-pointers.

Little men were making big men look silly. Skinny guys like Princeton's Gabe Lewullis were throwing up 3-pointers over the arms of big burly guys like Cal's Tony Gonzalez.

The smaller team would hold the ball until it saw a good shot -- and if it didn't see one it would keep passing the ball until the 35-second clock expired.

"We were playing right into their hands like they wanted us to," said Al Grigsby, who had 10 points in Cal's lowest scoring game of the year. "It's real frustrating. With those screens they use, it's really hard to prepare for.

"They run the backdoor play so much that you just can't stop it. If you take one thing away they have another. Even their big men are 3-point shooters."

Cal shot 33 percent in the first half and was only 2-for-8 from 3-point range. Princeton played a zone and clogged the

passing lanes so Cal couldn't get the ball inside. The only statistics in center Michael Stewart's column for the first 20 minutes were two turnovers and two fouls in five minutes played. Princeton, meanwhile, shot 57 percent in the first half.

But there were indications that Princeton's lead was built on quicksand: The Tigers had only two offensive rebounds, and their starting lineup had played virtually every minute.

"I thought we should have been ahead by about 10 at half considering what had happened," Princeton coach Bill Carmody said.

But the Bears came alive and went on a 15-2 run to start the second half, and now it seemed they would have their way with the much smaller Tigers. Randy Duck hit a 3-pointer to bring Cal within 31-30 and ran downcourt with his fist in the air.

Cal was finally able to get the ball inside against zone at the same time Princeton went 5:21 without scoring.

"They started being a little indecisive and started throwing the ball away," Grigsby said. "And every time they threw the ball away, it just fueled our break."

But when it seems you have Princeton put away, that's the time you have to worry. And so it went. The Tigers did not wilt.

With 1:36 left, the game was tied 50-50 and Princeton had the fans at the Wake Forest arena in their hip pockets.

It was then Cal coach Ben Braun put in a new defense especially to stop the easy backdoor passes Princeton uses when games get close toward the end.

"We put a defense in the last few days of practice and talked about taking away their screens and that helped us not getting beat on backdoor cuts down the stretch," Braun said.

Why hadn't he made the adjustment earlier? Because he was afraid it would confuse his own players and might have left Princeton open for more open 3-pointers.

Cal's big guys stood up at the end. Gonzalez atoned for a traveling call just before the Tigers tied the score for the final time by hitting a 12-foot fadeaway when he was uncovered at the baseline a few seconds later. Then he hit three of four foul shots in the final 33 seconds.

Grigsby was a defensive force in the final few minutes with a steal and a deflection. He also had his hand up to block a long Lewullis shot that would have tied the game with two seconds left.

In the end, size did win out. The Bears won the rebounding war 38- 18, and when the going got tough late in the game, Princeton wore down and could not pull a win out of its magical underdog hat.

Said Princeton's Sydney Johnson, who was held to only four points: "We did a poor job of responding to the enthusiasm that Cal came out with in the second half."

He was tired. And he looked it.

NOTES: Word out of the Cal trainers room is that senior Ed Gray, the Bears leading scorer (24.8 ppg) who is out with a broken right foot, could possibly play next weekend -- but it's a longshot -- if they reach the Sweet 16. . . . Duck and Kenyon Jones, who left the game in the second half with sprained ankles, are expected to play tomorrow. Duck aggravated the left ankle he sprained at Stanford on March 1. He limped to the locker room but returned to the court with the ankle heavily taped in the last minute. . . . Cal's 23 points in the first half were the fewest since 20 against Kansas State in 1995. . . . The 55 points were the fewest by Cal in any game this year and the fewest in a win since beating Nevada in 1985. . . . Gonzalez was in a higher-scoring football game last season: Cal's four-overtime 56-55 victory over Arizona.