BERKELEY, California — Dwayne Benjamin began seeing his cue early in the second half Wednesday. As California unleashed a parade of double teams on top Oregon weapon Joseph Young, Benjamin reveled in gobs of space.

The junior poured in 14 of his 18 points in the latter frame. With stifling team defense buttressing the individual eruption, the Ducks pulled away down the stretch for a convincing 80-69 win. It marked the first time in eight tries Oregon had topped the Golden Bears in the Dana Altman era.

More importantly, though, it buoyed the Ducks’ NCAA Tournament résumé. With two regular-season games left, Oregon sits third in the Pac-12 standings. The selection committee will surely look favorably upon on a team playing its best basketball of the season.

Three days removed from a home upset of then-No. 9 Utah, the Ducks brought no hangover on the road. They are now riding a three-game winning streak reminiscent of last season’s cinematic run to a March Madness berth. 

Players credit the late emergence to a young team coalescing. A host of newcomers are settling into roles, eradicating the clunky phases that plagued Oregon little more than a month ago.

The Ducks (21-8, 11-5 Pac-12) simply outlasted Cal (16-12, 6-9). They endured each Golden Bears rally until Cal’s fatigue settled in. In a game with heightened postseason implications, a 12-5 Oregon spurt midway through the second half proved the difference maker. 

It shot a blistering 50.9 percent from the field, outrebounded the Golden Bears 39-28 and recorded 10 more second-chance points than Cal. Benjamin and forward Elgin Cook (17 points) were worthy sidekicks to Young (game-high 25).

“It’s a big win because we just had a big one and we just bounced back,” Benjamin said. “We were keeping up the intensity. … We just want to keep up the momentum.”

With 5:09 left, Cook found the ball in transition, darted toward the rim and soared over Cal guard Tyrone Wallace for a monstrous one-handed slam while drawing contact. He pounded his chest twice, nodded emphatically and chest bumped teammate Dillon Brooks before stepping to the free-throw line.

With the swish of the net, the Ducks had seized a 73-63 lead. A once-raucous crowd was silent. Cal coach Cuonzo Martin, desperate to stop the bleeding, called for time. But the huddle provided no game-changing antidote. The Golden Bears were out of counterpunches.

“We knew we had to come in and fight,” Cook said. “Cal’s a great team.”

Oregon was aggressive early. It attacked the key, spread the floor and capitalized on open looks. By the first media timeout, the Ducks were up 8-3 on a Cal team shooting just 1-for-7 from the field.

The Golden Bears crashed the glass, extending enough possessions to weather mounting misses. They then awoke from their offensive malaise. With guard Jabari Bird leading the way, Cal used an 11-4 run to nab its first lead with little more than six minutes left in the first half.

Young kept mustering answers to Cal baskets. At intermission, the Ducks clung onto a tenuous 39-37 edge. 

Less than four minutes into the second half, navy-and-gold-clad fans erupted to their feet when guard Sam Singer hit the second of back-to-back Cal 3-pointers. With his team down three points, Ducks coach Dana Altman called for time.

Benjamin responded. The junior netted a 3-pointer, an and-1 layup and a turnaround jumper within 2:11 to help the Ducks retake the lead.

They switched to zone due to foul trouble. Oregon put hands on shooters, holding the Golden Bears without a field goal for nearly five minutes. Cal’s stagnation set up the Ducks’ game-sealing heroics. 

Oregon has won seven of its past eight games. Though the NCAA tournament may not yet be guaranteed, the Ducks will enter Sunday’s matchup at Stanford with supreme confidence. 

The growing pains that come with a new-look bunch have subsided. They’re finally free to have fun, Benjamin said. It was evident in each smile and wagging finger during Wednesday’s second half.

“This is a different environment for all of them,” Altman said. “This is the first time these guys have really been here.”

— Connor Letourneau
[email protected]
503-221-8168; @ConnOregonian

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