Stewart and Matthews roast Ducks 74-54

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March 9, 2018 by Sam Dodge

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Puddles is sad. (Galen Central)

LAS VEGAS – This weekend is turning into a coronation of program cornerstones of the Enfield era. It’s also a harbinger of great things to come.

Last night against Oregon State, Chimezie Metu was the difference in a defensive slog. Tonight, senior Elijah Stewart torched the nets for 15 points, and the defense continued their smothering ways in a 74-54 rout of Oregon in the Pac-12 semifinals.

Stewart combined with Jonah Matthews to beat the Ducks all by themselves in the first half, outscoring them 27 to 23. It wasn’t just hot shooting, either.

In the first five minutes, he not only drained two treys, but he batted a pass that led to a Jordan McLaughlin fast break, and swatted a MiKyle MacIntosh drive for his third block of this tournament. He would finish the half with 11 points overall.

“My teammates just screamed at me after last night,” Stewart said after only two points against Oregon State Thursday night. “I came out aggressive on defense, and it just fed my offense.”

This kept USC at Oregon’s torrid pace, nursing a 10-9 lead at the first media timeout. Matthews, a future foundational piece for Enfield and Stewart’s future replacement, sparked the decisive run. Matthews canned five threes in the first half, scoring 16 points as the Trojans outscored the Ducks 27-14 in the remaining 15 minutes. He kept it going in the second frame, ending up with 27 points on nine shots, including seven total threes.

Great offense isn’t rare for this USC team. They have bounced between a top-20 and a top-30 team in offensive efficiency all year. What has emerged in these last two games in Sin City has been a defense stingier than a Roulette dealer.

Holding Oregon State to 29 percent shooting or under 0.7 points a possession? Good, but not unexpected against a hobbled Beaver offense. To replicate that again, against Oregon coach and certified offensive guru Dana Altman is something else entirely.

The same Oregon team that pushed USC twice this season, scoring 70 each time, felt uncomfortable all night. They finished with 33 percent shooting overall, 29 percent from three, 14 turnovers and .78 points a possession.

Defense turned into offense, too. USC scored 23 points off turnovers, as Matthews and McLaughlin led several fast breaks that saw USC balloon the lead up to 28.

The run that saw USC build that lead was unequivocally the best Andy Enfield’s squad has looked all season. It included a defensive stretch where USC held Oregon without a field goal for over 10 minutes.

“The defense the best it’s been all season,” Enfield said. “They are carrying us.”

Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic completely eliminated the interior in the first half. While MacIntosh got going in the second-half garbage time, the first half was a cavalcade of airballs and turnovers.

Oregon may have felt the fatigue of its third game in three days, but six airballs is…not good, Bob.

The only blight on the night seemed to be 20 turnovers. Have you ever seen a game where a team wins by 20 with 20 turnovers?

“We just played horrible, didn’t we?” Enfield joked.

“It’s very uncharacteristic of us. We’re the best team in conference at protecting the ball. We’ll be fine.”

Jordan McLaughlin, in particular, might have felt the effects of the still-injured Derryck Thornton. He is playing all the minutes, and his jump shot simply wasn’t falling. He also turned it over 10(!) times.

“Oregon ran that full-court press in the second half,” Enfield said, “and we just dribbled behind our backs way too much. Once we adjusted, we settled down.”

Oregon cut the deficit to 15 with eight minutes left, but USC surged one more time to finish the job.

This should close the door on the NCAA discussion. Oregon was a fringe bubble team going into tonight, and the Trojans went duck hunting. Getting to the final, where the worst-case scenario is losing to a ranked Arizona team, should offset some bad bubble action tonight.

With Nevada and Middle Tennessee State losing the last two nights, USC needed an emphatic statement to avoid sweating out their fate on the drive back to Los Angeles.

They can make another statement tomorrow against Deandre Ayton and Arizona. After a season of turmoil, a tournament title would be the cherry on top of Redemption Tour 2018.

 

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