Trojans stiff-arm Stanford 69-64, take top-contender spot in Pac-12

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January 24, 2018 by Sam Dodge

Nick Rakocevic

Nick Rakocevic (31) replaced Bennie Boatwright, and stood tall in the rematch with Reid Travis and Stanford. (Michael Yanow)

LOS ANGELES — Since an embarrassing 77-74 loss to Cal in the conference opener, Stanford had been the No. 2 team in the conference.

There was the shot heard ’round the Farm. Down went a ranked Arizona State. Arizona sweated it out until the bitter end last weekend.

Despite missing Bennie Boatwright, USC snatched the top contender spot from the Cardinal Wednesday night, keeping Stanford at arm’s length in a 69-64 victory in Galen Center.

The Trojans improved to 16-6 and 7-2 in Pac-12 play.

Nick Rakocevic replaced Boatwright, and alongside a volatile Chimezie Metu, mostly offset an imposing frontcourt.

While a bullish 6-foot-8 Reid Travis scored 16 points, disciplined positioning from Rakocevic and weak-side help from Metu prevented a repeat of his 29-point outburst from early January.

“Our defensive effort was good tonight,” Enfield said. “We’re starting to learn how to win.”

With the 6-foot-11 Rakocevic holding his own with Travis, Metu beat Mitchell Humphrey with an explosive first step for 10 first-half points.

Humphrey did finish with 14 points on eight shots, while the two USC forwards combined for 21 points.

With no blowout on the interior, timely threes and steals from Jonah Matthews and Jordan McLaughlin kept a comeback at bay.

With a quick run to cut a 15-point halftime lead to single-digits, Matthews responded with three shots to regain momentum.

While the rim didn’t cooperate with everyone else — 25 percent from deep on the night — Matthews scored 18 points off four threes.

McLaughlin, in addition to his best Chimezie Metu impersonation, finally closed the door on the comeback late. With Stanford creeping as close as three with 21 seconds to go, McLaughlin intercepted an in-bounds pass to Travis.

After a missed free throw, he forced an off-balance three from Trojan heartbreaker Daejon Davis, and Elijah Stewart buttoned up the win with a dunk.

McLaughlin leads a backcourt that leads the conference in turnovers, forcing foes to cough up 24 percent of their possessions. Stanford lost it 16 times tonight.

In his usual fashion, he racked up assists, adding nine more to remain in the top-five players in the category.

Andy Enfield didn’t look great tonight. As mentioned before, the sans-Boatwright rotation failed to hit open looks, finishing a modest 46 percent from the field.

Cheap fouls gave Stanford 19 tries from the charity stripe.

The Trojans should have cruised, but almost lost the game at the end by blowing several double-digit leads.

Enfield, though, has remolded this squad in the wake of the De’Anthony Melton suspension. They play chippy. They challenge everything — in Metu’s case, sometimes by reaching through the basket.

The last three sphincter-constricting contests against Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford show the new identity.

Perseverance.

“We know we’re a good basketball team,” Enfield said. “We have guys that have won for us here. We just needed to keep plugging away, day by day.”

Cal should be like a Jefferson Avenue pothole. Seen it before. Easy to avoid.

Take care of them, and a suddenly dwindling UCLA team awaits at Pauley Pavilion next weekend. Boatwright endured a plantar wart in his foot, and expects to return next weekend for reinforcements against the 7-foot Thomas Welsh.

After tonight, even Welsh isn’t intimidating anymore.

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