BERKELEY, Calif. — Three dozen of Weber State guard Damian Lillard's friends and family purchased a block of tickets overlooking the Wildcats bench on Friday night in hopes of celebrating another memorable performance from the nation's leading scorer.
Instead Cal's Jorge Gutierrez spoiled Lillard's homecoming party and reaffirmed his status as one of college basketball's premier defenders.
Gutierrez's game-high 24 points became an afterthought following Cal's 77-57 victory because his man-to-man defense on Lillard was so relentless. Lillard entered the game averaging 26.9 points, but the Oakland native seldom beat Gutierrez off the dribble or took a jump shot without a hand in his face, factors that contributed to him scoring a season-low 14 points on 4 of 17 shooting.
"He's the best defender I've seen this year," Lillard said. "When you've got a great defender like him and a nice supporting cast that plays great team defense, it helps a lot. He's a great defensive player, and they defend well as a team."
What makes Gutierrez's defensive performance so impressive is how efficient Lillard had been in Weber State's first eight games. Lillard had made 55 percent of his twos and 45 percent of his threes entering Friday night's game and scored 23 or more in six previous games.
The crux of Cal's defensive game plan against Lillard was to use a big man to hedge on top-of-the-key pick and rolls in order to keep him from coming around a screen at full steam. Additionally, Gutierrez chased Lillard around every set of double screens Weber State tried to utilize to spring their star for catch-and-shoot jumpers, making sure he didn't get the space he needed to feel comfortable.
Watching Gutierrez put so much energy into not letting Lillard erupt suggested he was especially motivated to shut down a top-notch scorer, but the Cal star insists he wasn't "any more excited than any other game." His teammates and coaches backed him, noting he takes defense seriously whether he's guarding an All-American candidate or scrub off the bench.
"I think Jorge takes pride in defending whoever he guards," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "Lillard's a real good player. But he needs a little space to get off his shot, and Jorge is not going to give you any space.
"He takes it personal. He takes a lot of pride in it."
Gutierrez arrived at Cal as a role player who carved out minutes for himself off the bench with his effort and energy, but he has gradually blossomed into a star. The 6-foot-3 senior is averaging 13.9 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists, all while inevitably drawing the defensive assignment against the opposing team's top perimeter scorer.
Where Gutierrez has improved defensively during his Cal career is by complementing his all-out hustle with greater strength and savvy. He's now strong enough to fight through screens and cagey enough not to pick up needless fouls.
"He's smarter now," Montgomery said. "Once he figures out what it is you're trying to do, he does a pretty good job of taking away certain things. I think he's a little smarter about not getting cheap fouls. We've talked about that consistently, not getting those first two fouls so you put yourself in a position where you can't defend."
All of that was on display Friday night against Lillard, who had lit up San Jose State for 41 and Saint Mary's for 36 in his other games in the Bay Area this season.
Lillard missed 10 of his 11 first-half shots, contributing to Cal's 32-18 halftime lead. One of his second-half makes was a banked-in left-wing three. Another was a right-wing three that came after Gutierrez exited the game for good with just under five minutes remaining.
"He's a great player," the always understated Gutierrez said. "I think it was team defense. Everybody contributed to slowing him down."
With the game out of reach in the final two minutes, a group of Cal students serenaded Lillard with an "overrated" chant. It was tone-deaf in every regard.
Lillard is a gifted scorer, but on this night he ran into a defender who was a little bit better.