January 7, 2016 by Jacob Freedman
The Trojans are still adjusting to playing the role of favorite. A game after blowing a 22-point second-half at Washington on Sunday, USC (13-3, 2-1 in Pac-12 play) let a 15-point lead in the second half dwindle to two before a 10-0 run in the span of a minute closed out the feisty Arizona State Sun Devils (10-5, 0-2), 75-65. A game-time decision after injuring his ankle in Seattle, junior point guard Julian Jacobs had 15 points to lead the Trojans, while freshman forward Bennie Boatwright had 14 while sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin chipped in eight assists. The Trojans exceeded their 12 wins in 2014-15, and improved to 10-0 at home heading into a Saturday clash against Arizona that will see the most energetic Galen Center crowd of the season. Find out what we learned on Thursday night.
Too Close for Comfort
USC looked to be cruising to a double-digit win…until the Sun Devils starting scorching it from the field. After USC took a 65-55 lead with 3:12 to go, Arizona State guard Tra Holder went on a personal 8-0 run, keyed by a pair of threes, to cut the Trojans’ lead to two with 1:49 to go. After blowing a 22-point lead against Washington, a second straight crushing loss looked to be in play…until the fast break took over.
The Sun Devils then missed three straight three-pointers in quick succession. The first led to a Metu slam on the fast break from Jacobs, the second resulted in a Katin Reinhardt layup and the third ending with Jacobs scooping it in to push USC’s lead to 71-63. Darion Clark, a 40 percent shooter from the line, hit a pair of free throws to push it to 10 to eliminate any doubt. The game was closer than the final score indicated, but the Trojans did notch their second double-digit conference win of the season.
“We had flashbacks from Washington,” said junior forward Nikola Jovanovic on what went on in the Trojans’ huddle after Enfield called a timeout when the lead was cut to two. “But we said ‘we’re not going to let that happen again.’ And we didn’t. We played defense and got our fast breaks.”
Head coach Andy Enfield looked more relieved than pleased on the team’s performance in the postgame press conference. “We were fortunate to pull through,” he said. “Give our guys credit for withstanding their run at the end. I was proud for them.”
Clark Crunching the Boards
Darion Clark is still looking for his offensive touch after a season and a half on the court for USC, but his aggressiveness on the boards is keeping him on the floor.
With USC up 14 with 12 minutes left, the 6-foot-7 forward snared an offensive board, missed his first attempt, then got fouled on his putback attempt. Less than two minutes later, Clark timed his jump perfectly on a Malik Marquetti miss for an easy putback. He even provided some fire on the bench, giving a festive salute to Elijah Stewart after Stewart hustled to deflect the ball off ASU’s Gerry Blakes to force a turnover shortly after.
Enfield recruited Clark while at Florida Gulf Coast, and after being hired by USC, Enfield’s first transfer he landed was none other than the 6-foot-7 forward. With USC improving, Clark is becoming a vital bench contributor with his energy and rebounding prowess. “Darion’s one of the best rebounders outside of his area I’ve ever seen,” Enfield said. “That’s why we brought him here.”
Julian Jacobs texted Enfield on Wednesday night imploring to play after being listed as a game-time decision with his knee injury. “He was so emphatic on playing, I felt my hands were tied,” Enfield said. “He really led the team,” added Jovanovic. “He was a trooper.”
Jacobs embraces the floor general role well, but his chemistry on the floor with McLaughlin is the X-factor that gives USC a chance to make noise in March. “It’s whoever gets it going up,” Jacobs said on the simple formula of who takes the ball up the floor when both guards are on the floor. “We look at the top explosive offensive teams in the country, and they have a two-point guard system.”
Lob City Lives
The Trojans have been a highlight reel of dazzling dunks all season, but one of the finest came with 3:21 left in the first half. McLaughlin inbounded the ball from the baseline, lobbing it up to a running Chimezie Metu, who caught the ball with one hand and slammed it home with one hand. Some dunks sent the Galen Center into a frenzy, but this one simply left the Thursday night crowd in murmured bewilderment. A picture is a worth a thousand words, so a video is worth even more. Check it below:
You’ll get a better angle than Enfield. “I saw an arm about two feet above the rim. That’s all I saw,” the coach said when asked about the slam.
Offensive on the Boards
The Achilles’ heel of this Trojans team continues to be offensive rebounding. The Trojans are athletic, but sometimes look like a trampoline at a fourth grade birthday party with bodies flying everywhere.
On a Sun Devils possession midway through the first half, Andre Spight scooped his missed jump shot, missed a layup, then grabbed a second straight offensive board before laying it in while being fouled by Elijah Stewart. He missed the free throw… which was rebounded by the Sun Devils’ Eric Jacobsen. Later in the opening half, the Trojans blocked two straight Sun Devil shots before a missed tip-in by Jacobsen gave USC the ball back.
While USC held the Sun Devils to three offensive boards in the second half, the Trojans allowed ASU to stick around longer than they would have liked thanks to a pair of costly offensive rebounds in the final five minutes.
YOU Get a Three…and YOU Get a Three… and YOU Get a Three!
The Trojans opened up a 9-2 lead with a trio of long-distance shots. The Trojans could only push that lead to 11-2 as the Sun Devils went 7:18 without scoring a single point, missing out on an opportunity to put the game out of reach early on. A key trait for USC to improve on is flashing that killer instinct that could have prevented the Sun Devils from hanging around for the entire half. The Sun Devils are no slouch, but stronger Pac-12 squads like Arizona won’t let USC off the hook as easily for not capitalizing on red-hot runs out of the gate.
USC plays No. 7 Arizona at the Galen Center at 4 pm on Saturday. The Wildcats fell 87-84 to UCLA at Pauley Pavilion on Thursday night after a game-winning three from the Bruins’ Bryce Alford. The Trojans would love nothing more than to give the Wildcats a Los Angeles road trip to forget. “They put their jerseys on just like us,” Jacobs said, modifying the classic sporting cliche. “We feel like we’re capable of winning this league.”