USC veteran point guard Jordan McLaughlin turned the ball over on the first possession and after seven minutes it seemed the first play of the season was foretelling how the game would go all night.
The Trojans were struggling mightily Friday night at Galen Center. They were already facing a double-digit deficit to the Montana Grizzlies.
Elijah Stewart knocked down USC's first shot, but the field goal drought since was stretching toward six minutes. Montana collected a steal and was searching for a quick bucket on the fast break. Sayeed Pridgett brought the ball up the right side. He was being pressured by Stewart, but was able to get up a layup attempted that was headed for the glass. That's when freshman guard De'Anthony Melton came flying in from the opposite side.
Melton pinned Pridgett's shot off the glass. Stewart picked up the rebound and took it the other way, stopping at the three-point line on the left wing to fire up a shot. The ball swished through the net to start what would become a 22-7 run that gave USC a lead it would not yield in a 75-61 win to open the season.
"We were terrible," USC head coach Andy Enfield said of the sluggish start. "We were 3-for-12 with eight turnovers. You aren't going to win many games if you do that for too long, but we settled down."
Stewart led the way in the first half, scoring 11 points on 3-of-4 shooting to lead the Trojans and never slowed down. In the second half, he was even better. He finished with a career-high 30 points to lead three USC scorers in double figures. Shaqquan Aaron had 17 points in his USC debut. Chimezie Metu had 14 points in a career-high 37 minutes. All three players finished with seven rebounds.
Ahmaad Rorie, who transferred to Montana after beginning his career at Oregon, led the Grizzlies with 21 points, but didn't score in the final 13 minutes, missing his last three field goal attempts and a pair of free throws. Krslovic Fabijan was the only other Montana player in double figures, contributing 10 points and seven rebounds.
USC held Montana to 38.6 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle, 39-32.
Here's three takeaways from USC's season-opening win over the Grizzlies on Friday night:
Switch to Zone
After starting the game 4-for-5 -- all three-pointers, Montana went cold. The Grizzlies held a 14-3 lead early, but their offense went into hibernation as they made just two of their 18 shots following the quick start. Their offensive struggles coincided with USC switching to a 2-3 matchup zone defense.
Initially, the Trojans were struggling with big men Chimezie Metu and Nick Rakocevic having to switch on ball screeens against Montana's four-guard lineup. But the switch enabled the guards to close out hard and funnel the Grizzlies' shooters into the paint where Metu was waiting to swat at shots.
"They space the floor so well. They can all shoot," Enfield said. "I thought we were able to get to their shooters and we didn't have to switch and think as much. I thought our players were very active in the zone and got a lot of deflections. We were able to challenge all their threes, run them off the line."
USC's ability to shoot the passing lanes and create some Montana turnovers -- six during the 22-7 run, including five Trojan steals -- turned the tide.
"That really changed the tempo right there. They started getting frustrated," Elijah Stewart said. "People who were originally open were at the top of the key couldn't get their open shots any more. We made them play through the bigs and we knew that the guards were a lot better than the bigs, so we just made them play through the bigs."
Elijah Stewart spent the offseason watching how the NBA's top scorers got their points. He paid particular attention to James Harden and former Trojan Demar DeRozan and came to a conclusion that he wanted to translate to his own game.
"Coming into the season, I wanted to shoot a lot of free throws," Stewart said. "I've just been watching basketball a lot and some of the best, most efficient players shoot upwards of 20 free throws a game, so I just wanted to kind of do that."
During his USC career, Stewart had never shot more than six free throws in a game. He nearly shot three times that many on Friday, going 14-for-16 from the charity stripe. Because of his work at the free throw line, Stewart needed only 12 field goal attempts to score a career-high 30 points.
Stewart said he's "trying to shoot as many free throws as possible because that's the way to have an efficient game. Shoot free throws, get and-1s. If you miss [the field goal attempt while being fouled], you still get two points [at the free throw line], shot doesn't show up. It's perfect."
He scored 11 of USC's first 12 points, but he really went to work in the second half. Stewart attacked the rim both when he had the ball in his hands and when his teammates put up shots. He finished with seven rebounds -- five on the offensive end.
"He was very aggressive," Enfield said. "That's what we need from him. He's a super athlete. He needs to use the athleticism. I think that's the development you're seeing in a junior out there now. The body is improved, meaning he's gained about 10 pounds of muscle. He's more confident in his ball handling. He's just a better basketball player."
USC was without Bennie Boatwright -- one of four returning scholarship players on its roster -- because of a minor nerve issue in his shooting shoulder. (A USC spokesperson classified the injury as upper back spasms.) His absence put even more emphasis on the Trojans' newcomers to make an immediate impact.
Two newcomers started. Freshman Nick Rakocevic earned the start in Boatwright's absence, but was saddled with foul trouble much of the night. He played just 10 minutes and scored one point. Shaqquan Aaron, who sat last season after transferring from Louisville, said he had some nerves before the game since he hadn't played in nearly two years, but those quickly dissipated. He scored 10 first half points en route to a career-high 17 on 6-of-10 shooting.
"I thought Charles Buggs gave us great energy in the first half and got us some deflections and steals," Enfield said. "I thought De'Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews, the other two newcomers were terrific defensively. De'Anthony had nine deflections in the first half alone."
Melton, a freshman guard, finished with a stellar all-around stat line: eight points on 3-of-6 shooting, a team-high eight rebounds. two assists with two turnovers, two steals and one big block that helped swing the momentum.
The Trojans take on Nebraska-Omaha on Sunday at 4 p.m. (Pac-12 LA) at the Galen Center. The Mavericks return three starters from a team that won 18 games last season and competed in the CBI tournament, but lost their two leading scorers, who combined for 35.3 points per game last season. They open their season on Saturday at 2 p.m. against UC Santa Barbara.
- USC improved to 18-4 in its last 22 home openers and 8-6 in the last 14 season openers.
- USC forced 16 turnovers and was able to score 21 points off the turnovers.
- The Trojans are now 1-0 when outshooting their opponent after shooting 41.2 percent.
- USC is off to another good start at the Galen Center after starting 15-0 last year to set the record for the most home wins to start a season in USC history.
- Elijah Stewart became the first Trojan to score 30 or more points in a season opener since O.J. Mayo scored 32 against Mercer on Nov. 10, 2007.
- USC scored 21 points on 16 Montana turnovers.
- USC took 38 free throws tonight which matched its season high during the 2015-16 season (at Oregon State on Jan. 24).
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