BERKELEY, Calif. — Cal freshman Darius McNeill said he is finally at ease as a college basketball player.
He sure looked that way Tuesday night against Cal State Northridge.
McNeill made his first seven shots, including five 3-pointers, and scored 22 points as the Bears broke a three-game losing streak with an 83-63 victory over the Matadors.
McNeill shot just 2 for 11 in his first two college games, but has averaged 16.6 points in five games since.
“The first two games I was pretty nervous, trying to get a feel for college basketball,” he said. “Now I’m comfortable. I was just being aggressive, letting the game come to me.”
McNeill had 16 points in the opening nine minutes and 19 by halftime, sparking Cal to a 48-30 lead.
Don Coleman, who entered the game as the nation’s 10th-leading scorer at 24.0 points per game, had 15 points for the Bears. Kentucky transfer Marcus Lee added 14 points and four blocked shots.
Cal (3-4) was coming off a winless performance at the Maui Invitational, including a loss to Division II Chaminade in the seventh-place game.
First-year coach Wyking Jones said his players responded to three tough days of practice and changes that included going smaller and scrapping the full-court press that had been ineffective and left players fatigued.
“I’m a silver-lining guy,” Jones said. “If Maui doesn’t turn out the way it turned out, me and my staff don’t go to the drawing board and try to figure it out. The press is about reads, and we weren’t doing a great job making the right reads.”
Freshman guard Terrell Gomez scored a season-high 20 points to lead the Matadors (1-5), who remain without a victory over a Division I team. Tavrion Dawson added 17 points.
“I told the guys that they have to take it personal,” Northridge coach Reggie Theus said. “You can’t allow losing to seep into your character, and that’s the fight.”
Cal State Northridge: The Matadors played their fifth of seven straight games away from home, having also visit Fairfax, Virginia, and Cancun, Mexico. By the time they return from a trek to play at Montana and Idaho State, they will have traveled about 14,800 miles since their Dec. 10 season opener at home.
Cal: By improving to 7-0 all-time vs. Northridge, the Bears avoided their first four-game, non-conference losing streak since 1997-98 and their first 2-5 start to the season since 1978-79, when they won their first two games, then lost nine in a row.
SHUFFLING THE DECK: Jones made a lineup change, going smaller by giving freshman guard Juhwan Harris-Dyson his first start in place of senior center Kingsley Okoroh. Harris-Dyson, who sat out the first two games due to a flu bug that caused him to lose 20 points, scored 10 points. Jones did not play Okoroh and Lee, his two big men, together at any point in the game.
Despite starting just one player taller than 6-foot-7, the Bears had a 40-33 edge on the boards. “As long as we can rebound the ball, that is the way to go,” Jones said of his new lineup.
ASSISTANT TAKES LEAVE: Cal announced that first-year assistant coach Theo Robertson, a member of the Bears’ 2010 Pac-12 championship team, is on leave from the program. Director of operations Keith Brown will serve as the third assistant in the interim.
Cal State Northridge plays Sunday at Montana.
Cal plays Saturday at home against Saint Mary’s.