February is the shortest month of the year, but it was the longest ever for the USC Trojans basketball team as it went from a fun-to-watch, high-action team that was winning games and fighting for NCAA seeding to a slowed-down, lethargic loser just hoping to make the March Madness tournament. But the calendar finally turned and the Trojans finally looked like the team that had been so strong through its win against UCLA on February 4.
Ball movement. Shot making. Defense. All the things that had been missing in February suddenly reappeared Wednesday night at the Galen Center as the Trojans defeated Oregon State, 81-70.
A re-energized USC squad dismantled a stingy Oregon State defense in the first half, scoring a season-high 56 points in the first half and building a 23-point halftime lead. The Trojans were making sharing the basketball and making nearly everything. It was a sight for sore USC eyes.
The Trojans held a comfortable 20-point margin until the final 3:47 of the game when the Beavers scored the final nine points of the game to alter the cosmetics of the final score. Jordan McLaughlin's 17 points led four Trojans in double figures and he added nine assists. Katin Reinhardt scored 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting while Bennie Boatwright had 13 points and Nikola Jovanovic 10.
Gary Payton II scored a game-high 19 points, but needed 16 shots to do it. He also finished with seven rebounds, five assists and a steal. Freshman Stephen Thompson Jr. added 16 points despite being just 1-of-6 on 3-pointers.
#ItTakesATeam on Social Media Night
The Trojans hosted a "Social Media Night" and gave out t-shirts to the first 1,000 students with the motto they've used all season in hashtag form: "#ItTakesATeam." Then the team went out and lived up to the mantra in a big way, particularly in the first half.
USC moved the ball better than it had in a long time. When the Trojans had a decent look, they passed for a better shot and they knocked those down. They scored 56 points -- the most of any half this season -- after not having scored more than 30 first half points since Feb. 4. They shot 62 percent (21-34) from the field and were even better from the three-point line where they made 72 percent (8-11).
"To get [56 points] that means you're sharing the ball and people are making shots," USC head coach Andy Enfield said.
Katin Reinhardt was a primary beneficiary as he knocked down all four of his first half shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, a midrange jumper off the dribble and a driving shot on the baseline against good defense.
"The ball just went in the basket for us tonight," Reinhardt said. "It started on defense and just playing hard. We got back to playing how we've been playing all year."
Julian Jacobs had only two points, but he was able to find and attack the gaps in Oregon State's zone to set up his teammates. He had four assists in the first 20 minutes while Jordan McLaughlin did it all with six assists and 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting. In total, the Trojans had 15 first half assists on 21 made baskets, compared to just four turnovers.
"Everyone was sharing the ball and knocking shots down. It's a lot of fun when that is happening," Reinhardt said.
Clark Changes Things
For six February games USC struggled. Though one reserve doesn't change everything, it did for USC. Without backup forward Darion Clark, the Trojans lost their intensity and fire. It's something that naturally comes when Clark steps on the court.
"Having Darion Clark back meant a lot, just in practice. Our practices were very intense the last two days and our players came out and played just like they practiced," Andy Enfield said. "He just brings the energy. He brings the toughness. He brings the talking and his teammates respond."
Clark separated his shoulder on a hard fall during a practice the day before USC played UCLA at home. The Trojans didn't have much trouble with the Bruins, but Clark's impact quickly manifested itself when they went on the road at the Arizona schools and were dominated on the boards. For Clark, it was tough sitting and watching throughout the month as USC went 2-5 without him:
"It’s been a rough couple of weeks trying to get through one of the toughest parts of our schedule," Clark said. "I was just trying to bring energy and positivity."
"DC is a monster. Just his energy, the way he talks, the way he competes everyday in practice. Everytime the ball goes up, you see him trying to get the rebound," Katin Reinhardt said. "It's a spark plug. Every team needs that and DC brings it."
NCAA Tournament Bound?
Getting to 20 wins for the first time since 2009 is a big accomplishment for the Trojans.
"It's huge," Jordan McLaughlin said. "The fact that we got 20 wins shows how much hard work we put in this summer."
But reaching the 20-win plateau and assuring itself of at least a .500 record in the Pac-12 should also help USC to another accomplishment -- making the NCAA tournament. The Trojans should be in now. Coming into the game, USC was listed as a tournament team on 95 of the 98 brackets aggregated on The Bracket Matrix site. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports moved the Trojans up to a No. 7 seed after the victory and we just don't see enough teams doing enough to push the Trojans out of the tournament even if they were to lose to Oregon and in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament.
However, it definitely wouldn't hurt to notch another win or two going forward. Who knows? If USC were to win a couple games, they might push themselves up to being a No. 5 or No. 6 seed and secure a better first round matchup. The game on Saturday against Oregon is of the utmost importance because the Trojans want to hold their sparkling record at the Galen Center to only one loss and they want to avoid sliding in the Pac-12 standings. The Trojans are currently alone at sixth in the Pac-12 standings, but they could move all the way to No. 4 or slide all the way to No. 9 depending on the outcomes of this weekend's games.
With a win against Oregon, USC would hold the tiebreaker to be the No. 5 seed over Colorado, if the Buffaloes lose at Utah. And considering the top six teams in the Pac-12 are currently 98-4 at home this season, we're picking the Utes in that one. If Stanford were to win two on the road against Arizona and Arizona State and Arizona lost twice to the Bay Area schools at home, there could be a four-way tie for the fourth seed and Pac-12 tournament bye. But that is highly improbable. Securing the No. 5 seed and a first round matchup with Washington State is more likely and would be a great opportunity for USC.
But a loss on Saturday could also see the Trojans slip into a potential four-way tie for sixth place at 9-9 in conference play with Washington (regular season complete), Stanford (if the Cardinal split) and Oregon State (if the Beavers beat UCLA). And depending on how the tiebreakers shake out (we're waiting for clarification from the Pac-12), USC could face a much tougher first round opponent in Las Vegas than Washington State.
USC has two days to get ready to face the conference-leading Oregon Ducks (24-6, 13-4). The Ducks have already clinched a share of the Pac-12 regular season title with a win over UCLA Wednesday night, but they'll definitely want to lock up the title. Led by Dillon Brooks' 17.2 points, they feature a balanced attack that has four players scoring in double digits. Oregon beat USC 89-81 earlier this season.