The USC Trojans are off to their best start in 14 seasons thanks a 70-51 win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Monday night at the Galen Center.
For the second time in three games, the Trojans (10-2) played without point guard Julian Jacobs and the offense was again stagnant at times. The Trojans struggled shooting the ball, finishing the night making just 36.9 percent of its shots, but Nikola Jovanovic had his best game of the year so far. Jovanovic scored a season- and game-high 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting and tied his career high with 16 rebounds.
USC used a 10-0 run in the middle of the first half to open up a lead and then pulled away, ending the first half with a 15-2 run to take an 18-point halftime lead. The Cougars (3-8) cut the lead down to 12 points in the middle of the second half, but they made just two field goals in the final 12:20.
Carlos Anderson and Jalen Henry scored 10 points each to lead SIUE while USC harassed diminutive point guard C.J. Carr into shooting 1-for-9 and turning the ball over nine times.
Here's three takeaways from USC's win over SIUE at the Galen Center on Sunday:
It wasn't pretty, but it was still a win.
USC had its second worst shooting performance of the season, making just 36.9 percent of its shots. But while the Trojans' shooting was bad, SIUE's was atrocious. The Cougars missed 49 shots and 82.1 percent of their shots. USC's defense held them to just 9.5 percent (2-for-21) shooting from beyond the three-point arc with SIUE leading scorer Burak Eslik contributing significantly to that number with a one-for-eight performance. Eslik entered averaging more than 13 points per game, but scored just seven on 13 shots from the field.
"We had open looks for threes. We had open looks in the lane. We had open looks at the free throw line," Enfield said. "We did not shoot the ball well from anywhere. That kind of shooting caught up to us in our two losses. Tonight, we played enough defense to withstand our erratic shooting and our offensive inefficiency."
Unlike previous seasons, USC even went through an extended scoring drought and still lived to talk about it with a victory. In the second half, leading by 17 points, the Trojans went more than 13 minutes with just one field goal. How? They held SIUE scoreless for much of the time as well. The Cougars had a nearly six-minute stretch without a field goal and then were held without a field goal in the final 5:41.
"Defense was huge," point guard Jordan McLaughlin said. "Some nights, shots are not going to be falling, so you have to depend on your defense. With the system that we have, the defense will most time spark the offense. Somebody will get a block and then that will start the break and help us get easy transition buckets. The defense should always be there."
It might not have been a fun game to watch, but the Trojans were able to win with defense.
Get That Sh...ot Out of Here
The USC Trojans lead the nation.
It has been very rare to be able to utter that phrase any time in recent memory when referring to the men's basketball team. In fact, I don't think it has been said once in the last four or five years. But at least on Tuesday, the Trojans are the top team in the country in one statistic -- blocks. Following a 10-block performcance against SIUE, USC now has 81 for the season to overtake Nevada until the Wolf Pack plays gain.
Leading the thunder swats has been freshman Chimezie Metu. He added two more against the Cougars to give him 25 for the season -- more than two per game. Metu is one of four USC players to have swatted double-digit shots this season. Bennie Boatwright had a pair of swats against SIUE to give him 11 on the year while Elijah Stewart had two and now has 10.
"With the new rules, we've made an emphasis on jumping straight up and leading with your chest instead of your arms," Enfield said. "Our guys have done a good job of working on that and then we have some good athletes that can go get balls."
Without Julian Jacobs creating shots for his teammates, the Trojans needed someone to step up on Sunday night. That proved to be Serbian big man Nikola Jovanovic. Jordan McLaughlin, who played without a face mask for the first time since breaking his nose nearly a month ago, took over the primary ballhandling duties once again and scored in double figures for just the second time since the injury, but it was Jovanovic that carried the Trojans.
"Nikola was terrific tonight," Enfield said. "He rebounded out of his area. He was very aggressive. He got his hands on a lot of balls. He made some great offensive moves and was able to get to the foul line. He really dominated the lane area tonight."
He answered the bell with an aggressive performance that saw him tie a career high with 16 rebounds and score more than 20 points for just the fifth time in his career. Part of that can be attributed to him attacking and getting to the charity stripe for a career-high 11 free throw attempts.
"It's always physical. I just need to play through it, keep the contact and not try to get away from it. I think that's why I was fine tonight," Jovanovic said.
"Offensively, we have such good players that someone is going to step up every different night, which is good."
The Trojans will look to finish up the non-conference schedule with a six-game win streak and a perfect record at home on Wednesday. USC welcomes Lafayette (3-7) to the Galen Center at 7 p.m. PST. The Leopards are averaging nearly 76 points per game, but are allowing 85.5 points. If the Trojans shoot well, this game has 100+ point potential.