SAN JOSE, Calif. -- A funny thing happened when old-school coach Mike Montgomery threw a zone defense at UNLV on Thursday night.
Forty minutes later, it had been so successful, Montgomery's 12th-seeded team was moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
California held fifth-seeded UNLV without a field goal for more than 11 1/2 minutes of the second half, breaking from a halftime tie and posting a 64-61 upset victory in the second round of the East Regional at HP Pavilion.
After avenging a 76-75 loss to the Runnin' Rebels in December, the 12th-seeded Bears advance into a third-round matchup Saturday against No. 4 Syracuse.
No doubt, the difference in the two meetings with the Runnin' Rebels (25-10) was on the defensive end of the floor.
"I think the zone bothered them," Montgomery said after the Bears limited UNLV to 32.2 percent shooting from the field and 6 of 20 from behind the 3-point arc. "I don't think people probably expect us to do that necessarily, but there are times when it can work for you."
Playing before a partisan crowd about 40 miles south of campus and riding the momentum created by Pac-12 Conference rival Oregon's upset win over Oklahoma State while it was dressing, Cal (21-11) held UNLV standout Anthony Bennett to 15 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the field. The Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year had torched the Bears for 25 points in the previous meeting.
"They isolate really good athletes (against a man-to-man defense). That's where Bennett hurt us so much last time," Montgomery noted. "You've always got help in a zone. It changes the mentality some. I just don't think they probably liked it."
Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe led the Bears (21-11) with 19 points and sidekick Justin Cobbs added 13, making all three of his 3-point attempts. But it was the unexpected contributions of big men Robert Thurman (6 of 6 from the field, 12 points) and Richard Solomon (5 of 8, 11 points) that made the difference both offensively and defensively for Cal.
When Thurman wasn't manning the middle of the Cal zone against the rugged Bennett, he was dunking over the UNLV defense six times.
"For most guys that are (6 feet 8), it's not very hard to dunk," said Thurman, a senior whose college career will live for at least one more game. "I just got really lucky because Justin and Allen really penetrated well. I was wide open underneath the rim and did what most big guys are supposed to do."
After the teams had played to a 28-all standstill in the first half, Cal surged into a lead it never relinquished four minutes into the second half, using an 8-0 run to open the biggest margin of the game to that point at 45-37. Crabbe had two of the Bears' four hoops in the run, including a layup with 14:10 remaining that made it an eight-point game.
Meanwhile, the Runnin' Rebels were 2:20 into a stretch that would turn into a full 11:32 without a field goal, yet they somehow managed to stay within 52-44 before Mike Moser ended the drought with a tip-in with 5:00 to go.
Thurman had Cal's only two baskets during that stretch, then added a third to re-establish an eight-point lead at 54-46 with 4:36 to go.
The closest the Runnin' Rebels could get after that was two on two occasions in the final 14 seconds. Cal iced the win from the free-throw line, making it the third team from the much maligned Pac-12 to win its opening game.
"I don't think anybody in our league came in with a chip on our shoulder," Montgomery said of a trio that included Arizona, which blitzed Belmont in Salt Lake City. "I think Oregon thought they were supposed to win. I think we thought we were supposed to win. That's the way we approach these games.
"It was a good conference this year."
Down six and gasping for air, UNLV appeared to catch a break when Bryce Dejean-Jones was ruled to have been the victim of a Flagrant-1 foul on Cobbs, resulting in two free throws and possession with 1:40 to go.
But befitting the Runnin' Rebels' night, Dejean-Jones made only one of two free throws and Bennett misfired under pressure from 8 feet, effectively ending his team's hopes.