November 22, 2016 by Jacob Freedman
Not able to pay attention to USC’s relatively early (6pm) contest against New Orleans in the wake of Notre Dame Week? The Trojans sure didn’t pay a smaller-than-usual Galen Center crowd any mind. USC (4-0) used a 15-0 run midway through the opening half to open up a sizable lead on the visiting New Orleans Privateers (1-3), then surged to a 88-54 victory behind 21 points from Elijah Stewart. Four more Trojans finished in double figures, while Jordan McLaughlin had a season-high nine assists.
“We came out and did what we wanted to do,” Stewart said. “We wanted to clear the bench today.” Clear the bench they did, as three walk-ons saw their first action of the season while seldom-used freshman Harrison Henderson notched his first points of his USC career.
Glue Guy… or More?
Elijah Stewart may be now entrenched in the starting lineup, but the junior guard continues to be a swiss army knife with his assortment of skills on the court. Against a guard-heavy Privateers squad, Stewart had sticky fingers on the perimeter throughout the night.
While he only had one steal, Stewart also had a sequence where he hit a pull-up three-pointer, then blocked a layup attempt by New Orleans’ Erik Thomas two possessions later. In the second half, he sliced to the rack for a layup off the glass, leapt through the air to block a New Orleans corner three, then zoomed down the court for another layup.
While Shaqquan Aaron might be the shiny new electric engine with his three-point stroke and McLaughlin might be relied on to grasp the steering wheel of the Trojan offense, Stewart has the ability to shift USC into a different gear. After 30 points in the season opener and 21 tonight, ‘glue guy’ might be an undersell.
Don’t Doubt Defense
USC’s defense domination of the Privateers continued into the second half, where the Trojans’ size wore down the visitors. New Orleans shot just 34.4 percent from the field, the lowest for a USC opponent this season, and the Trojans’ swarming defense forced a season-high 19 turnovers and 15 steals.
Head coach Andy Enfield noted after the game that defense is the reason behind USC’s 4-0 start, while Stewart added his insights on a defense that has held every opponent below 40 percent shooting this season. “If I’m not scoring, I’m making sure no one else is scoring” the guard said on USC’s team-wide defensive attitude. “We have that hater mentality. You kind of take things personally… it’s hard to single someone out on defense. It’s a pride thing.”
The Kids Are Alright
After entering the night with 10 points in three games, freshman guard Jonah Mathews finally saw his breakout. The Santa Monica product tossed in a quick five points soon after coming off the bench, and finished with 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting, hitting 3-of-4 from long distance.
“It feels great,” a beaming Mathews said after the win. “This game, I was able to get out of my slump and knock shots down. I credit my teammates for finding me in open spots.”
Melton, meanwhile, showed a flair of for the opportunistic. The 6-foot-4 guard had a soaring slam dunk on the fast break, while also snagging a lob from Jordan McLaughlin for an acrobatic layup later in the second half to finish with 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting. The guard also has a flair for the big play on defense, adding in five steals to his Pac-12-leading total. “He’s tough, and has a nose for the ball. You can’t teach that,” Enfield added.
Along with Mathews, Nick Rakocevic also had a career-high with 6 points. Harrison Henderson, the lanky forward out of Texas, notched his first points as a Trojan with a transition slam with under two minutes left in the contest.
Surging Ahead and Away
After trading baskets for the opening minutes to a 12-11 advantage, the opportunistic Trojans reeled off a 15-0 run. Holding the Privateers scoreless for over six minutes, six different Trojans contributed to a stretch that put an outsized New Orleans squad in a deep hole early.
As unusual as it sounds for a game where USC notched a season-high 42 first-half points, the impetus for the run was USC’s interior defense and length. With Chimezie Metu’s 6-foot-11 frame painting the post and McLaughlin forcing errant passes from New Orleans’ point guard duo, the Trojans never let their Southland Conference goes get in an offensive rhythm. Going 6-of-8 from the field during the run didn’t hurt, but pesky defense, like the key late steal in USC’s road upset over Texas A&M last week, can be the key in swinging tight games during the Pac-12 slate.
What About Bennie?
In his second game back from a back injury, the sophomore forward went 2-of-11 from the field en route to seven points and four rebounds. This comes on the heels of a 3-of-13 performance against Texas A&M last week. Despite shooting barely above 20 percent so far, Enfield isn’t worried about his starting four. “He just needs to play minutes and get that confidence back,” the coach responded. “We’re not concerned. He can shoot the ball at a high level, he just needs to get his legs back.”
The Trojans host the SMU Mustangs (4-1) Friday afternoon at the Galen Center, then will take on UC Santa Barbara on Sunday.