March 9, 2016 by Jacob Freedman
Chimezie Metu doesn’t just dunk; the wiry freshman has used his springboard of a vertical leap to crush dreams. Never was it more clear than his merciless one-handed slam over UCLA’s Gyorgy Goloman, which sent a raucous USC contingent in Las Vegas dancing and highlighted a 95-71 domination of UCLA, the third occasion this year, which in all likelihood send the Trojans dancing all the way to the NCAA Tournament. “Haven’t been a great team the entire season, but when we play like this, we can beat anyone on our schedule,” Enfield said following the win. Bennie Boatwright led USC with 19 points, while Jordan McLaughlin added 18 points, Nikola Jovanovic had 16 and Julian Jacobs had 10 points and 11 assists for his first double-double in Pac-12 play this season.
The Trojans used a 13-4 run in the final three minutes of the first half to break open a 19-point lead heading into the break, then never let up the gas pedal en route to a desperately needed win that ensures the Trojans a significantly less stressful Selection Sunday. The closest the Bruins got again was 15 with 9:46 to go, but a 9-0 USC run put the contest out of reach for good. USC improves to 21-11 (10-9 in Pac-12) on the year, and faces No. 12 Utah (24-7,13-5) with a golden opportunity to keep their NCAA seeding on the upswing.
About Those Utes
The Trojans will be back in the fray at 6pm on Thursday, as they aim to exact revenge on a Utah team that dealt them their first home loss all season three weeks ago. The biggest problem, literally, is Pac-12 Player of the Year Jakob Poeltl, who went for 29 points and 13 rebounds in USC’s 80-69 loss in the first matchup.
For McLaughlin, the key to cracking the code lies with communication. “Making sure we’re engaged and locked into the game plan, whether we’re switching or playing the ball screens” the junior guard said when asked how to limit Thursday’s opponent.
USC will need to put forward another impressive effort on the boards after out-rebounding the Bruins 52-30 to have a chance against a Utes squad on a seven-game winning streak. The USC big men need a collective effort to stymie Poeltl, although Jovanovic believes the key to stopping the Austrian big man lies with the Trojans’ aggression on offense. “Getting the ball and attacking [Poeltl] defensively, because if you take him out of the game with foul trouble, I think we have a pretty good chance,” the Serbian forward said about USC’s modus operandi. Poeltl had four fouls in the Utes’ two losses right before their hot streak, so Jovanovic might be on to something for the game plan.
Enfield and the players were mum on the subject, but Wednesday’s hammering of UCLA lightly clinched the Trojans’ first NCAA berth since the 2010-11 campaign. USC now sits with 21 wins, as well as non-conference wins over an NCAA squad (Yale) and two squads right in the thick of it for an at-large berth (Wichita State and Monmouth). The Trojans have 10 wins in CBSSports.com’s second-ranked conference, as well as no truly hideous losses on the docket. The bubble has become more populated with a slew of mid-majors (The two squads above USC defeated as well as Valparaiso and St. Mary’s stand out) falling in their conference tournaments, but the UCLA and Oregon State wins help give the impression that the Trojans aren’t fully tumbling into the postseason. A win over Utah erases any sliver of doubt, but the Trojans’ win Wednesday ensured they won’t be biting their nails for the next four days.
Bennie And The Nets
Bennie Boatwright came to play in his first postseason game, tying a career-high with five three-pointers en route to a team-leading 19 points. The lanky frosh drew UCLA’s perimeter-averse big men out of their comfort zone, stretching the floor and tiring out Tony Parker (five points on 2-of-7 shooting). “The freshmen played beyond their years tonight,” said Enfield. Boatwright rides hot and cold, as freshmen are wont to do, but the 6-foot-10 string bean us USC’s most important chess piece in the mismatch he creates, and will need to retain his shooting touch for the Trojans to space out the similarly paint-heavy Utes.
Less Midrange Is More
‘Never settle for less’ tends to be good advice for relationships, especially USC’s with their shot selection. Instead of settling for contested shots inside the arc, the Trojans used a mishmash of transition ball movement and halfcourt patience to create open threes and close-range chances.
Whether it was Jacobs eying the lane and completing his personal four-point play, Metu treating Goloman like a stepstool (see below) or USC’s first-half barrage of threes (8-of-15), USC creating ample opportunities in the halfcourt negated their 17 turnovers. USC finished with just four points on two-pointers outside the paint, generally the least effective shots a team can take.
Chimmy Chimmy Ya
Chimezie Metu and the rim became well-acquainted Wednesday, with the freshman notching three slams. The second might have been his finest all year, as the short-shorts sensation levitated momentarily before crushing home an authoritative slam over Gyorgy Goloman, prompting Malik Martin to shake his freshman teammate while yelling “Is that real?” repeatedly. “You’ll got to throw the ball anywhere inside the backboard, and he’ll go get it and finish it,” added McLaughlin. Take another look or 10:
USC did their best slot impression late in the first half, notching seven points on one possession. Julian Jacobs saw a hole down the middle and slashed to the basket for a dunk, hitting an off-balance layup while being tackled by Tony Parker. The hack warranted a flagrant foul, and Jacobs hit both free throws before Katin Reinhardt hit a pull-up three-pointer to complete USC’s most fruitful trip down the court of the season. It also keyed a 13-4 run in the final three minutes of the first half, pushing a 10-point lead into 19. “I didn’t honestly think it would be a flagrant because they [the refs] were letting us play, but we like that anyway,” Jacobs added.
Battering Down The Bruins
The Trojans last won three games against the Bruins in 1954 going into the night, and USC’s 3-0 record against their their crosstown rivals proved to be the difference in 15-17 UCLA’s first losing season in six seasons. USC had the year in question scribbled on their locker room whiteboard, and didn’t hesitate to revel in the achievement. “Any time we can make history, it’s awesome,” Jacobs said.