December 31, 2017 by Sam Dodge
Jordan McLaughlin, 11, shoots over Malachi Flynn, 22. McLaughlin notched a double-double with 10 points and 11 assists in a 89-71 win over Washington State. Courtesy: Pac-12.com (Dec. 31, 2017)
LOS ANGELES – Andy Enfield bemoaned his team’s aggressiveness in Friday night’s defensive debacle against Washington.
Chimezie Metu responded on Sunday night. Perhaps a touch too much.
Metu whacked Washington State’s Carter Skaggs in his nether regions and got ejected late in the first half.
However, the rest of the team’s improved defense catalyzed the Trojans to a 89-71 victory over the Cougars at Galen Center.
On New Year’s Eve, Enfield’s defense made up for a year plagued by soft defense, holding one of the nation’s best shooting squads to well under a point per possession.
“We were much more active on the ball,” Enfield said. “Far more energetic in the passing lane.
“We talked to our team the last two days about how much success they’ve had the last two and a half years. They know what it takes to be great defensively.
“We’ll keep getting better.”
Washington State head coach Ernie Kent’s team shot 34 percent overall, more than 20 percent below their season average.
Enfield played a smaller lineup, pulling 6-foot-11 forward Nik Rakocevic in favor of 6-foot-3 guard Jonah Matthews.
The backcourt fueled the defensive resurgence.
Senior guard Elijah Stewart, in between pacing the offense early with a personal six-point run, harassed on defense with three steals and an acrobatic block.
He finished with 17 points on eight shots.
This combined with the return of guard Derryck Thornton from his shoulder injury helped Jordan McLaughlin play at full strength.
“Derryck is such a good on-ball defender,” Enfield said. “He’s still getting into a flow, but it’s great having him back.”
After a month of carrying the entire load at point guard, McLaughlin breathed easier tonight, dishing out 11 assists and creating easy buckets in transition off turnovers.
“It felt great,” McLaughlin said about getting some rest. “I’ll keep playing whatever the situation, though. I can always rest tomorrow.”
He finished with a double-double as he scored 10 points on 12 shots.
The Cougars, in total, turned the ball over 17 times, which USC turned into 22 points.
Right before his ejection, Metu kick-started an explosive sequence on both ends of the floor. He blocked a Malachi Flynn runner, distributed to McLaughlin, who dished it back for an emphatic flush.
With USC pushing the lead to double-digits, Metu stunted the momentum.
After Skraggs heaved a tough, fade-away three, the long-limbed forward flew in to challenge the shot. On his way down, he moved his hand in the path of Skraggs’ groin.
With Skraggs writhing on the floor, Metu hustled down the court to finish a fast-break with another slam.
At 33-19, the officials reviewed the sequence. While the score stayed the same, they slapped USC’s leading scorer with a second-degree flagrant foul and an ejection.
He left with seven points.
Enfield couldn’t comment on the play, as he didn’t have a visible angle.
The energy, though maybe too much the junior forward, spread to his younger teammates.
Rakocevic, the sophomore forward who turned 20 tonight, came in after Washington State closed the first-half gap to three.
He forced tough shots, and with no time left, rebounded a Boatwright miss and sunk a putback to give USC a 41-31 lead into the break.
The birthday boy connected on six of seven shots for 12 points and collected nine boards.
The second half turned into a rout fueled by a scrappy Jordan Usher four-point swing.
The 6-foot-7 freshman guard hit a runner to make it 59-46. Next, he stole the inbound pass and scored a layup to push the lead to 15.
By the next break, USC sprinted to a 69-46 lead.
Usher contributed 10 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Everyone contributed, as six different players scored double-digits, including Boatwright’s 13.
“I loved how we distributed the basketball,” Enfield said. “We like having 23 assists.”
The Trojans improved to 10-5, while the Cougars fell to 8-6.
USC makes its Bay Area trek next week, battling the UC Berkeley Bears on Jan. 4. They follow that with a Jan. 7 trip to Palo Alto to play Stanford.
At 1-1 in conference play, USC plays the bottom-tier of the conference before a big road trip to Eugene, Oreg on Jan. 18.
The Bears opened Pac-12 play with a win over rival Stanford 77-74 Saturday night.
“We have two conference road games,” Enfield said. “They’re never easy. Cal won big the other night, and anyone can win at home in the Pac-12.”