Early in the second half of his team's match-up against USC on Sunday night, Cal coach Mike Montgomery didn't like the attitude or focus star guard Allen Crabbe was displaying.
"He had no expression," Montgomery told reporters after the game. "Mentally, he just needed a wake-up call."
Montgomery's way of firing up Crabbe was a hard two-handed shove to the chest during a timeout, an action that led to what appeared to be an angry exchange of words between the two on the sideline. Forward Richard Solomon eventually intervened and he and guard Justin Cobbs escorted Crabbe back to the tunnel for a few minutes to cool down before reentering the game.
Crabbe responded to the shove by spearheading Cal's rally from a 15-point second-half deficit with 10 points in the final 4:20 to lead the Bears to an 76-68 victory. Nonetheless, most of the questions the junior guard and his coach received after the game centered on whether Montgomery was out of line putting his hands on a player.
"It was coach using his way of motivating me," Crabbe said. "There was nothing wrong with it. It was just spur of the moment. An emotional game was going on at the time and he was trying to motivate me. But everything's fine. It's under the bridge. He's my coach. No hard feelings about it."
Montgomery initially was unapologetic about the shove, noting with his trademark wry sense of humor, "Worked, didn't it?" He later admitted he "probably overdid it a little bit," but also explained his rationale.
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"We were standing around. Nobody was ready to play," Montgomery said. "Allen had come down twice, he'd gone to the wrong side of the floor and his guy shot two threes in. I was trying to get him going. ... Allen's my guy. I need him. We can't win if he's not ready to play."
Mike Montgomery (USA Today Sports Images)One reason the exchange between Crabbe and Montgomery received so much attention during and after the game was because it was so out of character for the veteran coach. Montgomery is highly competitive and prone to raising his voice to get his point across like all coaches, but there are no known instances of him putting his hands on a player.
At the same time, this incident probably doesn't merit a suspension or other disciplinary action for Montgomery. Anything more than a stern warning from Cal or the Pac-12 would be overkill considering Montgomery's previously spotless reputation, especially since Crabbe has already insisted there were no hard feelings after the game.
The flareup between Crabbe and Montgomery overshadowed another key win for Cal in its surge into NCAA tournament contention. The Bears (16-9, 8-5) have now moved into a tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 thanks to five wins in six games, including victories over Oregon, UCLA and Arizona.
The USC win is as impressive as any of the others simply because the Trojans are playing as well as any team in the Pac-12 recently. They had won four straight entering Sunday's game and appeared headed for a fifth before Cal launched its comeback.
The Bears, down 47-32 when J.T. Terrell hit a 3-pointer with 15:56 left, still trailed by 10 with six minutes to go. It was then that the Bears got scalding hot, finishing the game on a 25-7 spurt highlighted by Crabbe's trio of 3-pointers.
Crabbe finished with 23 points and 10 boards, boosting his candidacy for Pac-12 player of the year. After the second of his three late threes, Montgomery wrapped his arms around Crabbe's shoulders and praised him for a job well done.
It was a well deserved pat on the back for a kid who had showed impressive resilience to earn it.
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