BERKELEY, Calif. -- California coach Mike Montgomery stomped his foot again and again, waved his hands in every direction and pleaded with players for a spark.
One finally came 20 minutes later.
Deeper into the season, that might have been too late.
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Jorge Gutierrez scored a season-high 26 points to go with six rebounds and five assists, and No. 24 California overcame a shaky first half to match its best start under Montgomery with a 73-57 victory against McNeese State on Monday night.
"We can't fall into that trap that says, 'We're supposed to beat them,' " Montgomery said. "There are a lot of teams around the country that can play basketball. You make the assumption that because it's McNeese State they can't play. And it's not true."
Cal almost found out first hand.
Allen Crabbe had 20 points and six rebounds and Harper Kamp scored 10 for the Golden Bears (6-1), who struggled early before opening an 18-point lead in the second half. Cal also started 6-1 in Montgomery's first year in 2008.
"We were coming out kind of sluggish and taking our opponent lightly," Crabbe said. "Coach just told us to pick it up, and we came out more aggressive."
McNeese State gave the Bears all they could handle.
Patrick Richard had 18 points and Dontae Cannon scored 15 for the Cowboys (3-3), going 1-1 on a rare West Coast trip. The defending Southland Conference champions beat Sacramento State two days earlier.
The Bears stumbled at the start with a rare lack of hustle against an overmatched opponent.
McNeese State's 2-3 zone gave Cal fits, and the small school from Louisiana sucked all the energy out of an already quiet -- and half-empty -- Haas Pavilion for what was supposed to be a tune-up test for the home team.
Instead, it almost became an upset.
The Cowboys opened with an 8-2 lead capped by Cannon's jumper, diving for loose balls and running into the stands at one point to save a steal. Not until Kamp's jumper more than seven minutes into the half did Cal take its first lead at 10-8.
"We might have caught them by surprise," Richard said. "They might have thought we were a cupcake. I don't know if that's true but they might have. And we just came out and played well and hit shots."
McNeese State regained the lead and held firm until the buzzer.
With the clock ticking down, Gutierrez snatched a defensive rebound and sprinted up court, almost losing his balance until flinging a pass from behind his head at half court to Crabbe on the wing. Crabbe rose up near the Cowboys bench and sunk a 3-pointer as time expired, giving the Bears a 28-26 halftime lead and bringing fans to their feet in the loudest ovation of the night.
"We've still got to start out better than this. We can't take our opponent for granted," said Cal forward Richard Solomon, who tied a career-high with 10 rebounds.
Everything reverted to form from there.
The Bears bolted out on a 10-2 run in the second half highlighted by Solomon's three-point play, converting a layup as he was fouled by Cannon. Cal eventually went ahead 55-37, the Cowboys sliced the deficit to eight before the Bears took control again.
Montgomery still won't feel satisfied about his Bears shaky shooting and defense.
The play seemed awfully similar to Cal's 92-53 loss at No. 13 Missouri last week -- with the Tigers then-ranked 21st -- before returning home to beat Denver. While the Bears can sneak by in the early going on talent, they'll need more complete performances if they expect to challenge for the Pac-12 title.
Gutierrez was not made available after the game to reporters per Montgomery's decision, a team spokesman said. The coach was unhappy with his point guard's defense in the first half but said he "very subtly took over the game."
"Mentally, I don't think we were prepared to compete and it showed," Montgomery said. "We were disorganized as far as we were running our fast-break, we had all sorts of problems. We didn't have regular spacing. We turned the ball over when we should have had buckets."