March 2, 2016 by Jacob Freedman
It seems all it took was a flip of the calendar for the Trojan offense. After a February lull saw USC lose five of six in a freefall toward the NCAA bubble, a 56-point first half, their most points in a period all season season, accelerated the Trojans to a 81-70 win over Oregon State at the Galen Center on Wednesday night. The Trojans used a 15-0 run to transform an early deficit into a 10-point lead early on, then throttled the Beavers with a 18-3 push in the final five minutes of the first half to take a 56-33 lead into the break. They never looked back. “We knew that scoring wasn’t going to be an issue when we started the game off with intensity,” said junior guard Katin Reinhardt.
The second half was a slog, filled with ill-fated fast breaks and USC saving enough ammunition from their first-half powder keg to keep the Beavers at bay. The lead never fell under 16 until the final few minutes, when a potential comeback was well out of reach. USC improves to 20-10 (9-8 in Pac-12), earning their first 20-win season since the 2008-09 campaign. Jordan McLaughlin led USC with 17 points and nine assists, while Katin Reinhardt had 15 points and Bennie Boatwright chipping in 13.
The NCAA Tournament is just two weeks away, and the possibility of USC making the NCAA Tournament looms large. Wednesday’s win was crucial for that quest, giving USC the win over an Oregon State team ranked 27th in RPI going into the night. For junior forward Nikola Jovanovic, 20 might be the magic number. “I think we are,” Jovanovic said on if USC is comfortable making the tournament after the win. “We have some big RPI wins.”
USC ranked 40th in RPI before the win, and was a No. 9 seed on ESPN.com and a No. 7 seed on CBSSports.com. Head coach Andy Enfield preferred to focus on Saturday’s game against Oregon in the postgame presser, but a loss against the ninth-ranked team in the nation will likely not outweigh the Trojans’ Wednesday win, making this week a net positive. Realistically, one win in next week’s Pac-12 Tournament should seal the deal on the NCAAs. Barring a meltdown next Wednesday in Las Vegas, USC should enter Selection Sunday on the right side of the bubble. Of course, the Trojans can eliminate any doubt with a win over Oregon. “We’re 16-1 at home,” Enfield mentioned after the game. “Whatever magic we have on our home court, we need to bring it Saturday.”
No. 9 Oregon will enter the Galen Center on Saturday having locked up the regular season Pac-12 title. The Ducks won’t be taking things easy on USC, however. The stakes are higher for the Trojans, who can not only give their NCAA resume a huge shot in the arm with a win, but also improve their Pac-12 Tournament positioning. USC is currently sixth in the Pac-12.
Clark Comes Back
After missing seven games with a shoulder injury, junior forward Darion Clark made his return with 6:43 to go in the first half. He exceeded his scoring average without even notching a basket, using two goaltending buckets for a quick four points. He also picked up two fouls in just over a minute and missed three of four free throws in a topsy-turvy initial return. “He’s a spark plug, and every team needs that,” Reinhardt said.
Return Of The Mac
Jordan McLaughlin shook off the stench of his Bay Area trip in rousing fashion, notching 17 points and nine assists to lead the Trojans. After just nine points total on 24 percent shooting the two games prior, McLaughlin was red-hot from the start. The sophomore guard notched 12 points and six assists in the opening half, careening into the lane enough to throw off the Beavers’ zone while also nailing a pair of pull-up three-pointers. “We felt like we got back to the team that won 19 games,” McLaughlin said following the win. “We got our confidence back in the film room.”
The saga of Katin Reinhardt was more Jekyll than Hyde, with the junior guard scoring 15 points for his highest total since January 28 against Washington State. His night, however, ended on a sour note after Reinhardt missed his final three shots once the game was beyond decided. The final miss saw Reinhardt drive down the middle against three Beaver defenders before tossing a one-hander off the backboard while looking for a foul. Enfield wasn’t amused, and took Reinhardt out the next play. He spent the final five minutes of the blowout parked on the bench.
A basketball-spinning wise man always says that the best offense is a good defense, and the Trojans’ first-half effort proved it. After Oregon State their first four three-pointers to capture a 12-7 lead, USC stuck to the game plan and forced Oregon State into contested shots in the paint. “Our whole defensive game plan was to shrink the gaps, run the three-point shooters off the line, and we really locked into the game plan this week,” Reinhardt said. After the initial flurry, Oregon State went 3-of-14 from long distance for the duration.
A Half To Forget
The Trojans well-constructed first half lead was never truly threatened, but Enfield was less than amused with USC shooting just 30 percent in the final 20 minutes. The Trojans didn’t notch a point in the final 3:47, as the Beavers reeled off nine straight to make the blowout less apparent in the final box score. “Our players threw the ball around the gym for six or seven minutes, and I wasn’t very happy about that,” Enfield said.