This didn't turn out the way it seemed like it might. Which of course is why they play the games.
You find yourself coming to USC basketball games these days with a certain sadness. There's a sense you know how this story is going to end, you just don't know when.
As it seemed again Saturday when the Trojans trailed a hang-tough but not all that talented Oregon State team that's made so much more of itself this season than a USC team that seemed headed for its 10th straight loss had managed to do.
And then it happened. Down four in a first half at Galen that saw it commit half as many turnovers -- 12 -- as points scored -- 24, it happened. With two seconds left, Luis Gavrilovic overplayed and then stole a pass from OSU's Malcolm Duvivier and got it up the floor to a flying Julian Jacobs who checked out the clock, saw he had a second left and slammed the ball through with two hands right before the red light went off.
But what happened next is what matters here. The intermission didn't slow USC down. The much-more-athletic Trojans came out flying and didn't let up, scoring 15 of the first 18 points in the first six minutes after halftime against an OSU team that beat it 59-55 in Corvallis.
"We're talented enough to do that," Andy Enfield said of a team that had lost one game after another this season -- Stanford, at Cal, at Oregon, that Oregon State loss -- when the Trojans were still in it the last 30 seconds and couldn't find out a way to finish it off.
"They've played well enough to have six more wins in the conference," Enfield said.
Saturday they got one because they just kept playing -- "hard, if not always well," Enfield said as his Trojan team (10-15) improved to 2-11 in the Pac-12. That's an uptick from last season when it took 17 league games to get USC to two wins.
Enfield said he was "happy . . . excited," for his players. "We've got to scratch and claw," he said of a team that, especially in the halfcourt, both on offense and defense, doesn't have "the decision-making," Enfield said. They have to keep working on that.
Or as they did Saturday, just play fullcourt with high energy and athleticism as they ran away from the plodding Beavers, who had somehow parlayed a late firing and head coach hiring in May with the loss of their five top scorers into a 16-9 season (7-6) in the Pac-12.
When Enfield looks for those extra half-dozen wins USC should or could have had, he can look to OSU, where they've maximized their skills, such as they are. Then on Saturday, USC did much the same.
Flying around, overplaying the passing lanes, running out with rebounds the way Jacobs did, grabbing a ball at one end under the basket, turning and just flying upcourt leading the break and leaving the Beavers behind.
But Jacobs, with 14 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three blocked shots against seven turnovers, wasn't alone.
Freshman Elijah Stewart (with a game-high 19 points including five of 10 from three-point range, five rebounds four assists, three steals and three bolcks) was back for the first time in nearly two months.
To put Stewart's return in context, the Pac-12 Player of the Week and National Freshman Player of the Week for his 22-point game at Boston College on 10-of-10 perfect shooting from the field, had scored a mere 24 points in the next 12 games -- 11 in the Pac-12.
And veteran Katin Reinhardt (16 points with three of six from three with four assists) stepped up to give USC a trio of athletic perimeter players who starred in the absence of freshman point guard Jordan McLaughlin, whose shoulder injury had him missing again for the second time in a USC Pac-12 win.
Is there a connection? Probably. With the ball in McLaughlin's hands, USC seems to stay more in its halfcourt game, a game it just hasn't begun to figure out how to play. Team defense and halfcourt offense just are not parts of the game these players know how to do.
But they can run and distribute the ball and defend (six blocks between them for the flying Stewart and Jacobs), with dunks everywhere. This looked like that Florida Gulf Coast team that catapulted Enfield to LA. And the team USC fans have been waiting for.
This won't be as easy to do against "an Oregon team that handles the press," Enfield said. But is there any other way to go? USC has proved it can't play the other way. Play the way you can play.
Play the way that takes advantage of your players' skill sets and see if that's good enough. Why even consider going halfcourt? You'll just come up short. But open up the floor and fly around and see if opponents can match your energy and athleticism.
The difference could not have been more noticeable in the way USC shot the ball from the perimeter, as the trio hit on 17 of 34 shots including eight of 18 from behind the arc. That's the benefit of getting up the court quickly and if the break isn't there, dishing it back to a wide-open spot-up shooter. Those shots just never seem to come in USC's set offense.
USC really has nothing to lose here going this way, mimicking a Jerry Tarkanian team. Sure, maybe Arizona clobbers the Trojans this week in Tucson. But they do that to lots of people.
Forget the game-to-game tactics and find a way to play that fits these players so when they go to Arizona State before hosting Washington State and Washington and finishing up at UCLA before the Pac-12 tournament, they have a personality and come out game after game as a team that knows who it is and how it has to play.
"That's how most of our team played in high school -- fast break basketball," Stewart said. "Tonight felt like I was playing high school again.""After losing so many games, we felt like today was a must-win game," Jacobs said. "We never fell like we're going to lose but after losing so many games, . . . "
But here's when you're not going to lose. When you have a 25-4 edge in fast break points and a 20-3 edge off the bench. That's what playing this way does for this team.
Turn 'em loose, Andy. That's what Saturday told us. This was not a 1-11 Pac-12 team. Saturday they showed us that.
Saturday also showed us something else. The crowd of 3,831, more than you might think for this team with this record, although with fewer students than you'd hope to be here, enjoyed the heck out of it. And stayed and cheered to the end.
Which is when they were treated to one of those plays that -- even with the second-guessing of Pac-12 analyst Don McLean -- were fun to watch as Stewart banked the ball off the glass on a breakaway for the trailing Jacobs to slam home for his second straight half-ending stuff.
Not the thing to do for a 1-11 team, McLean seemed to be saying. This USC team hasn't earned the right to have this kind of fun, he was saying. Win some more games before you do this.
But let's flip this one around. Maybe this is a young team that believes those wins will come if it plays this way and doesn't worry about what people say. Just go out and play all out and find the fun when it happens.
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