January 28, 2018 by Sam Dodge
LOS ANGELES – How do you overcome an early Sunday morning hangover? Tylenol? Advil?
The answer for USC was their No. 1 turnover defense in the conference. They harassed Cal into 14 first-half giveaways, and turned a 16-8 deficit into a 77-59 victory in Galen Center.
USC improved to 17-6 and 8-2 in Pac-12 play. It’s hard to avoid how sloppy the first half was against the conference’s worst team.
“We struggled in the first half offensively,” Andy Enfield said. “We started to play more like the last eight games in the second half.
“We just needed to select our shots our shots better.”
The first ten minutes were the worst of the slog. USC started 23 percent from the field as they settled for jumpers.
Cal, the No. 312 shooting team in the country, opted to feed Marcus Lee and 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh early, creating the eight-point lead off 63 percent shooting.
Chimezie Metu and Nik Rakocevic, carrying the frontcourt load with no Bennie Boatwright for the second straight game, recalibrated the defense from there.
First, a Metu swat led to a Jonah Matthews three. Next, Rakocevic stood tall inside, denying a clean entry pass to Okoroh. McLaughlin swiped it and went coast to coast for two. Another poke by Metu led to a run-out by Thornton that led to two free throws.
Just like that, 16-8 became 16-15. The defense continued to dominate, at one point forcing turnovers on 40 percent of Cal’s first 25 possessions. USC finished with 24 points off giveaways.
Metu and Rakocevic faltered offensively, combining for only 15 points on 16 shots.
While USC finished the half shooting only 32 percent, the problems on offense went beyond that. The Trojans frequently missed open passes, like when Shaqquan Aaron drove the lane only to miss a cutting Metu for an easy dunk.
Aaron, in particular, had a rough night. He accounted for four of USC’s 10 turnovers, and scraped out six points on seven shots. He did do this:
— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) January 28, 2018
A Jonah Matthews three right before halftime gave USC the lead at 31-29. It portended good things in half No. 2.
Matthews connected on two more in the second frame, but Elijah Stewart responded to some halftime motivation to erupt.
“Elijah had his whole Westchester High School staff here today,” Enfield said, referring to the senior’s Los Angeles-based alma mater. “I relayed a text from them saying if he wasn’t going to hit his threes, they’d leave.”
“(Enfield) is a very sarcastic person,” Stewart said. “My old coach, Coach Azzam, doesn’t have a cell phone. He’s so old he uses carrier pidgeons.”
Stewart finished with 16 points with four second-half threes. Matthews matched that with 16 of his own.
In total, USC shot 48 percent from deep, including an 8 of 13 effort in the second half.
Jordan McLaughlin, up to No. 4 nationally in assists, dished 10 assists.
Metu and Rakocevic started to relax a touch too much in the second half, ceding 23 points and 12 rebounds to Kentucky-transfer Marcus Lee.
“He got too many post touches,” Enfield said, “but you got to give him credit. Great player.”
Enfield also confirmed that Boatwright is day-to-day with his plantar wart in his right foot.
“He’d play,” he said, “if we were in the Final Four.”
Suffice to say, Boatwright is coming back next Saturday for the trip to Pauley Pavilion.
Even with him back though, Lee recreated the interior headaches the USC defense have far too often seen this year. Add tonight’s performance to the list behind Noah Dickerson, Reid Travis and Tres Tinkle.
Chimezie Metu, right, and Nik Rakocevic, behind 7-foot-1 Kingsley Okoroh, sparked the defense in the first half. They relaxed in the second. (Jacob Freedman)
Furthermore, officials called Chimezie Metu for his third technical foul of the conference season. Officials didn’t clarify what happened to Enfield, but the junior forward sat on the bench for much of the final frame.
Metu’s fire has helped bolster his defense, replacing Rakocevic as the best interior defender since the first Stanford game. However, tonight’s technical showed the flip side of that enthusiasm.
They need peak Chimezie and Boatwright to snag a road win over UCLA.
While the Trojans have a week to rest, the senior leaders know the task at hand.
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” Stewart said of the bye week. “We don’t want to get too comfortable.
“We know we’re gonna talk about or mama’s and grandma’s on the court. We know that it’s a sea of blue once we leave the bus. That’s why this week is important to get our work in.”
The work put in since Washington has produced a remarkable stat. USC is now the No. 1 defense in the conference per Ken Pomeroy.
“We’re a 55-foot buzzer-beater,” Enfield said, “from leading the league.”
In Westwood, it’ll be the No.1 defense against the conference’s No. 1 offense in UCLA.
As if you needed more motivation for rivalry week.