January 4, 2018 by Sam Dodge
Andy Enfield after USC’s 80-62 win over Cal at Haas Pavilion in Berkeley. After embarrassing defensive efforts against Princeton and Washington, USC had held two straight teams below 40 percent. (Sam Dodge)
BERKELEY, CALIF. – In the first few minutes of Thursday night’s game in Berkeley, the Pac-12 basketball world fixed its eyes towards Colorado’s surprising victory over No. 4 Arizona State.
USC visited Haas Pavilion, where they last won in 2011, without their now former captain Chimezie Metu for the first half. The ingredients were there for another upset.
Instead, USC strangled UC Berkeley 80-62 behind a resurgent defense and forward Nik Rakocevic’s 19 points.
While the Golden Bears hardly boast an impressive offense, ranking last in the conference in efficiency according to KenPom, the numbers are comprehensively impressive.
With four minutes left in the first half, Cal mustered only 10 points.
In the entire game, even including garbage time, USC ceded only 0.84 points per possession.
They forced 22 turnovers, and the Bears connected on barely a third of their shots.
Yes, this offense is putrid, ranking No. 205 nationally. They are the worst shooting team in the conference, and turn the ball over on a fifth of their possessions.
While the competition assuredly paints a better picture for USC, tonight’s effort coupled with a 39 percent night by a much sharper Washington State on Dec. 31 creates a positive trend.
“We were way more active tonight with our hands,” head coach Andy Enfield. “We turned defense into offense, which helped us with our shot not falling.”
The start was a slog.
Both teams turned the ball over and missed open jumpers. Cal center Marcus Lee bullied his way to four points on putbacks after missed bunnies, while USC started taking advantage of sloppy ball-handling for easy fast-break opportunities.
Rakocevic quickly compensated for Metu’s first-half absence, as well, making an old-fashioned three-point play and another layup before the first break.
After the first whistle, Rakocevic took over, stoning Lee inside and scoring to push the lead to 21-8 at the nine-minute mark.
He efficiently tallied 13 points on five of six shooting before the break, and outworked Lee, a Kentucky transfer, time and again.
Lee is one of the nation’s offensive rebounding leaders, yet failed to win the matchup as he and Rakocevic each grabbed seven rebounds.
Rakocevic, while happy with his career-high 19 points, was unhappy the media got in the way of him eating delicious Popeye’s Chicken. (Sam Dodge)
“I felt as comfortable as I’ve ever felt tonight,” Rakocevic said. “It was different not having Chim (Chimezie Metu) out there in the first half, but he pointed me in the right direction defensively.”
“I loved how Nik challenged shots,” Enfield said. “He boxed out, owned the middle, and played the type of defense we need.”
With the inside threat neutralized, others flourished.
Bennie Boatwright drew 7-foot-1, 267-pound Kingsley Okoroh most of the night. The Cal big man couldn’t keep up with Boatwright, and the USC junior made him pay from deep.
Boatwright finished with 15 points with three of six shots falling from behind the arc.
Freshman wing Jordan Usher turned in his second straight game in double figures with 14 points on a perfect six of six shooting.
He added four steals and contributed to the huge 27-point advantage in points off turnovers.
“Crazy energy from Jordan tonight,” Enfield said. “We might need to lock him up in Alcatraz until Sunday, because he was stealing everything.”
While it’s hard to take too much from this game against a clearly overmatched program, Arizona State and UCLA – 107-99 losers in overtime at Stanford — road losses to conference bottom-dwellers puts tonight’s dominant win in perspective.
There are landmines on the road in the conference, and USC sidestepped an early one.
“We can only control our effort,” Enfield said, “which may not always result in a win.
“It does get us that much closer.”
With lackluster defensive efforts against Washington and Princeton in the not-too-distant mirror, the Trojans assuredly know they need to keep their foot on the pedal.
After a few days off, USC looks to sweep the Bay Area schools Sunday against Stanford at Maples Pavilion.
With Chimezie Metu returning, that one might be even easier.
“He’s the hardest working player I’ve coached in my career,” Enfield said. “He was like another assistant on the bench today.
“I expect great things out of him.”
Metu played sparingly in the second half, but made his presence known with a thunderous dunk over 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh.
He finished with six points on two of three shooting.
These next few games offer a chance for USC to mold themselves into a scarier conference contender.
The nation’s No. 18 offense combined with a competent defense is tantalizing, and potentially turns this season of disappointment into one of redemption.