BERKELEY, Calif. — Justin Cobbs raced down the floor past Southern California's defense and scored on a game-tying three-point play. The next time down the court, California's speedy point guard got an even more wide open look in the lane and gave his team the lead for good.
Keeping the up-and-down Golden Bears in the thick of the Pac-12 race might be a bit more difficult.
Cobbs broke out of a two-game shooting slump to score 22 points and freshman Jabari Bird added a pair of late 3-pointers as California beat USC 77-64 on Sunday night.
"They part the sea so it's an open lane," Cobbs said of his pivotal play that came as part of a 9-0 run. "I just tried to go finish."
Cobbs had been mired in a 4-for-20 skid before going 8 of 10 from the floor against the Trojans. He made his final five shots and added seven assists while helping Cal (18-9, 9-5 Pac-12) split the season-series with their inter-state rivals.
Cobbs made it through the game despite a pair of hard collisions with USC players. Both times, Cobbs lay prone on the court momentarily before getting up and hobbling off.
The Bears needed all they could from the senior guard, who needs three assists to move past Jason Kidd into fourth place on Cal's career list.
Coach Mike Montgomery's team shot just 36.7 percent and were limited to 27 points in the first half.
Still, Cal moved into a tie for third with Stanford in the Pac-12, one game behind idle UCLA.
"It was a win we had to have," Montgomery said. "We just changed what we were trying to do and opened up the court. They were jamming the paint but we got the post up away from the basket and it opened up some driving lanes, and Justin was good at finishing."
Ricky Kreklow added 12 points off the bench while Bird and Tyrone Wallace scored 10 points apiece for the Bears.
Pe'Shon Howard scored 17 points for the Trojans (10-17, 1-13), who have lost eight straight.
"They put four guards in there and spread the floor and gave the ball to (Cobbs)," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "We did a decent job containing him but in the second half he played like a senior all-league player."
The game between two teams headed in opposite directions was much closer than anticipated until Bird helped Cal pull away.
He split past two USC defenders to score on a fast break, then made back-to-back 3s to give the Bears a 72-60 lead.
After a basket by the Trojans' Strahinja Gavrilovic, Cobbs scored on a layup and made the free throw to complete the three-point play.
That was in stark contrast to the first meeting between the two teams on Jan. 22 when USC led the entire way of a 77-69 win over the Bears. That was also the only conference game the Trojans have won this season.
"We've had struggles at home lately and it feels good to finally get one back, especially (against) a team that we gave one up earlier in the year," Kreklow said. "Each game right now is very satisfying considering how close the race is in the Pac-12 for those top three, four spots."
The Trojans were coming off another sluggish effort during Thursday's 80-59 loss at Stanford but didn't have much trouble keeping up with the inconsistent Bears early.
Howard had 11 points in the first half, five coming as part of an 11-3 run by USC just before the break. Julian Jacobs added a 3-pointer and Omar Oraby scored the final three points of the half to put the Trojans up 30-27.
The Bears trailed early in the second half before Wallace's quickness on the break, along with a lift from Kreklow, got Cal going. The duo, limited to a combined 2-of-9 shooting in the first half, did all the scoring during an 11-0 run early in the second half.
J.T. Terrell kept USC close and made a pair of free throws and a jumper that tied the game at 56-all.
Cobbs then scored on back-to-back trips down the court and Kreklow added three straight free throws to push Cal's lead to 64-56.