Cal squanders another chance to take control of Pac-10 race

LOS ANGELES — As Cal's Jerome Randle trudged down a hallway and toward the team bus after Thursday night's dispiriting 66-63 loss to USC, someone told him that Arizona had lost and the Bears were still tied for first place in the Pac-10.

Randle shrugged his shoulders, shook his head and didn't bother to turn around.

You can understand Randall finding little consolation in a four-way tie for first place in the Pac-10 because he knows Cal squandered a chance to put some distance between itself and other would-be contenders.

A late four-point lead at Arizona last Sunday? Wasted. A 13-point first-half cushion over USC? Didn't last long. And the Bears' chances of ending their infamous 50-year conference title drought? Well, that's certainly not looking like the slam dunk it could have been.

"It's not good, man," Randle said. "There were high expectations for us this year, and we're not living up to them at all. I'm really disappointed in our team effort. I think we need to really dig down deep, do some self-evaluations and see if we really want this because the way were playing right now, it don't look like we want it."

In the five decades since Cal last hung a conference championship banner at Haas Pavilion, the most amazing thing is how rarely the Bears have even been close. The only times Cal has even been in striking distance were a pair of Jason Kidd-Lamond Murray era teams that finished second in the early '90s and a Leon Powe-led squad that lost at home in overtime to UCLA in 2006 with the Pac-10 title on the line.

Perhaps that's why the Bears (14-8, 6-4) admit they're feeling some pressure to break the jinx given that the conference is at its lowest ebb this season. The three teams that Cal is tied with are an Arizona State team that lost its two stars to the NBA this summer, one of the worst UCLA teams since the Wooden era and maybe the least talented Arizona team of the past two decades.

"I suppose anyone that's with us or behind us is disappointed," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "This notion that we're appreciably better than anybody is obviously not the case. We have to compete."

As discouraging as anything about Cal's loss on Thursday was the way the Bears played once they built a 30-17 first-half lead. They then somehow allowed 25 straight USC points, went scoreless for the next 10 minutes and did not get a bucket from anyone besides Randle for an incredible 17:04.

Improbably Cal still had an opportunity to win after rallying from a 12-point second-half deficit to take a one-point lead on a Randle 3-pointer with 4:37 remaining. USC regained control on back-to-back threes from point guard Mike Gerrity to seal the mild upset.

"It's not a time to put our heads down and act like the season is over," Cal's Patrick Christopher said. "There's a lot of basketball left to play, and we need to stay positive. There's no need for us to get our heads down."

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