BERKELEY — Nothing is certain. There are no guarantees, no promises from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
But Cal moved a huge step closer to its postseason dreams Thursday night with an 81-78 overtime victory over USC in front of 10,027 rowdy fans at Haas Pavilion.
Patrick Christopher, who led the Bears with a career-high 29 points, scored eight in the overtime, including two free throws with 5 seconds left after an inbounds play reminiscent of one of Jason Kidd's old tricks.
With the Bears clinging to a 79-78 lead after USC's Daniel Hackett made a 3-point shot with 9.2 seconds left, Christopher found no one open on the inbounds play. So he bounced the ball off the back of Hackett, collected it and dribbled up court before being fouled.
- Slide Show: Cal vs. USC
"Patrick just made a real intelligent play," coach Mike Montgomery said. "We did not have a timeout left."
The Golden Bears (21-7, 10-5 Pac-10) avenged an earlier loss to the Trojans (16-11, 7-8) in Los Angeles, posting their seventh victory over a team rated in the top 50 of the RPI computer.
Perhaps just as important is this bit of historical ammo: Over the past 20 seasons, no Pac-10 team with at least 10 conference victories and 20 victories overall in the regular season has been denied an NCAA bid.
But Montgomery won't let his team relax before Saturday's home finale against UCLA. The most recent Pac-10 team that didn't get an NCAA invitation with 20/10 credentials was his 1987-88 Stanford team.
"I don't know the big picture," Montgomery said. "I just know you don't like to lose twice to anybody. SC is a good basketball team. They knew how important this game was to them. For them and us, this was a big game."
Jerome Randle had 15 points and eight assists, and Theo Robertson contributed 10 points and six rebounds for Cal, which shot 24-for-27 from the free throw line.
Hackett equaled his career high with 26 points for USC, eight in overtime. Taj Gibson had 21 points and 12 rebounds.
Randle was proud of his team five days after a disappointing road loss to Oregon State. "It's great," he said. "Coming off a loss and responding and playing hard and getting a 'W' says a lot about the team."
Freshman Jorge Gutierrez delivered two free throws with 16.4 seconds left in the overtime to put Cal up by four before Hackett's long 3-pointer.
"Jorge making those two free throws was a pretty big deal," Montgomery said. "I think the kids showed some guts. We could have quit when we got to overtime. Patrick was very good, obviously."
Cal seemed well on its way to its 16th home win in 17 tries when Gutierrez converted two free throws for a 59-47 lead with 7:39 left.
But the Trojans fought back, scoring on nine consecutive possessions and pulling even for the first time since the game's first five minutes when Marcus Simmons made two free throws for a 63-all score with 2:05 left.
Randle made two foul shots for the Bears with 1:58 left before Gibson hit two for the Trojans seven seconds later. Neither team scored again in regulation, with Randle missing a long 3-pointer just before the horn.
Cal scored the first eight points of the second half to open a 46-34 lead.
The Bears led by as many as nine points twice in the first half before taking a 38-34 advantage into the break. Christopher had 16 first-half points for Cal, which shot 65.2 percent over the first 20 minutes.
Contact Jeff Faraudo at email@example.com.