Bear Attack: Trojans Clawed in Bay

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February 28, 2016 by Sean Burch

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Jabari Bird celebrates a 3-pointer in the first half (Charlie Magovern/Galen Central).

Not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio, the USC Trojans find themselves clinging to their postseason lives after being mauled by the Cal Bears.

Seemingly a lock for the NCAA tournament two weeks ago, the Trojans are now reeling after their second straight road thrashing in the Bay, falling to Cal 87-65. The defeat dropped the Men of Troy to 1-5 in their past six games, putting their tournament hopes in serious jeopardy heading into the final two games of the regular season against the Oregon schools.

“It’s the same hoop, same ball,” said Julian Jacobs on the Trojan’s troubles away from Galen Center. “Whatever it is, we’re mental midgets on the road.”

The game started off auspiciously enough for the Trojans, with the squad opening up a lead early in the first half. Nikola Jovanovic was especially impressive, connecting on seven of his first eight shots on his way to 15 points at the break.

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Julian Jacobs attempts a layup in the second half.

But in a battle of the Trojans’ second-highest scoring offense in the Pac-12 against Cal’s top rated field goal defense, the Bears won handily.

After a Jovanovic tip-in knotted the score at 26 apiece with 8:26 left in the first half, the Trojans were as cold as the water under the Bay Bridge (humor me), going nearly seven minutes without notching a single point.

The Bears took full advantage of the Trojans’ offensive woes, going on an immediate 14-0 run. And the lack of firepower was only exacerbated for the Trojans when Jovanovic headed to the bench after picking up his second foul of the game with six minutes left in the half.

Swingman Jaylen Brown lead the charge for Cal, with the freshman showing why he’s poised to be a lottery pick this June. Brown scored 15 of his 18 in the opening 20 minutes — stamped by a coast-to-coast layup with 3.8 seconds left to push Cal’s lead to 44-30 at the break.

“Whenever we don’t make shots, for some reason it translates to poor defense,” said Jacobs. “That was the name of the game — we just couldn’t guard.”

Appropriately enough, Cal held USC to 39 percent shooting from the field in the first half — nearly identical to its Pac-12 leading mark.

The night was especially rough for the promising freshman duo of Chimenzie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, who combined to go 0-of-13 from the field.

Coach Andy Enfield was hopeful after the game the shooting struggles wouldn’t linger.

“Everyone goes through slumps, or mini-slumps,” he said. “We love our players, we work with them, keep pumping them up, and we’ll have them ready for Wednesday.”

Beyond Jovanovic’s inspired 21-point, 9-rebound performance, the offensive plague touched everyone on the Trojans. Boasting a near half-foot advantage across the starting lineups, Cal’s length clearly flummoxed speedy guard Jordan McLaughlin, who finished with a mere seven points on 3-of-8 shooting from the field.

Meanwhile, the Bears continued the onslaught in the second half, pushing their lead as high as 28 at one point, with the exclamation point coming from a thunderous jam from senior Tyrone Wallace.

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Jaylen Brown scored a team-high 18 points against the Trojans (Charlie Magovern/Galen Central).

Two plays in particular late in the game symbolized the nights for the respective squads.

After fighting for a backcourt steal, Chimenzie Metu looked to dish to an open Jovanovic for an easy dunk, but instead rocketed the ball through the Serbian’s hands and into the crowd. The big man could do nothing but put his hands on his head in deflation, before patting the freshman on the back as they walked to the bench.

Yet, everything came up roses for Cal, with senior reserve Nick Kerr splashing a corner three-pointer in the closing seconds of the game on Senior Night, sending the crowd into a frenzy. For his part, dad Steve Kerr raised his hands above his head with a smirk of mild amusement on his face.

So, where do the Trojans go from here? Well, it starts with an apparent must-win against Oregon State on Wednesday at Galen Center, followed by the season finale against the Ducks on Sunday.

Reach Sean Burch here or follow him on Twitter.  

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