Chimezie Metu banked in a short hook shot to pull USC within a point, 77-76, with just over a minute remaining at the Galen Center. The home team needed a defensive stop. It got it before the ball was ever inbounded.
Troy forward DeVon Walker grabbed the ball out of the net and prepared to pass it in, but when the Florida graduate transfer went to let go of his pass, he saw USC guard Elijah Stewart race in front of Troy's point guard. Stewart would easily have intercepted the basketball and had an open layup attempt, so Walker held onto the pass. But his momentum carried him forward off the end line for a turnover.
On the subsequent possession, Metu was fouled and tied the game with a free throw. Stewart grabbed an offensive rebound when Metu missed his second attempt and Jordan McLaughlin put USC ahead for good when he banked in a driving floater from a step above the left block.
USC forced a turnover after blocking two shots on Troy's next possession and McLaughlin sealed the victory with two free throws, his game-high 20th and 21st points of the night.
The host Trojans trailed their namesakes for much of the night, but USC pulled out an imperfect 82-77 win to remain a perfect 10-0 on the season while Troy fell to 6-5.
USC had four players score in double figures led by McLaughlin. Metu had 18 points and eight rebounds. Stewart scored 11 while freshman Nick Rakocevic had 10 points and seven rebounds.
Wesley Person led Troy with 19 points but did not score in the final 17:25. Jordon Varnado scored 17 points while Kevin Baker added 15.
USC held Troy to 39.4 percent shooting thanks to a tremendous defensive effort in the final 12 minutes of the game.
Here's three takeaways from USC's nailbiting win over Troy on Saturday night:
Pair of Slow Starts
One of the biggest Achilles' heels for USC this season has been sluggish starts and Saturday's night game was no different.
Chimezie Metu said the coaching staff noticed the team was "kind of looking lackadaisical" during warmups and it appeared to carry over to the game. Troy scored on six of its first eight possessions to open up a 15-6 lead in the first four minutes, 15 seconds.
Ten of those initial points came from Wesley Person. Allowing someone with the genetics of Person, whose father Wesley Sr. and uncle Chuck both starred at Auburn before lengthy NBA careers, to get going early on is never a good idea. Person led all scorers with 15 points in the first half, making four of his seven attempts from three-point range.
It was more of the same in the second half. Person scored two quick baskets and Troy got points on its first six possessions to push a two-point halftime lead quickly up to 10 points.
"Our starting lineup has to do a better job defending and getting us out to a lead versus in a deficit," USC head coach Andy Enfield said after the game before intimating that the coaching staff may consider changing the lineup. "We'll take a look at that and fix the issues we have with our starters and if we can't fix it, we'll make some changes or figure out the rotation."
USC struggled the first three-fourths of the game with Troy's ability to run pick and roll and get open looks either from behind the arc or contested shots in the paint that resulted either in buckets or offensive rebounds when Troy missed since USC's post players were having to step up to defend the rim.
Troy's guards were unafraid to step back and take contested three pointers rather than always drive to the basket, but it all stemmed from getting the matchups it wanted against USC's bigs.
"Our man-to-man they hurt us. We switched all the ball screens in the first half and they were making 25-, 26-footers," Andy Enfield said. "We switched Chimezie on a couple of those guards and instead of driving the ball like most guards do against bigs, they were stepping back and shooting deeper threes and making them all. They made eight in the first half.
"The game is about shotmaking and they certainly made a lot of shots tonight."
Early in the second half, USC tried to go with a four-guard lineup, but Troy consistently found a way to isolate USC's single post player and attacked him off the dribble after using the pick and roll to get a switch.
But the tide finally changed when USC went to its 2-3 zone defense and got active on the wings. The zone helped negate the pick-and-roll action and USC closed out hard on shooters to make sure Troy didn't get the open three-point looks it did against the zone in the first half.
"We defended down the stretch when we had to and we're fortunate to win," Enfield said. "Troy outplayed us for a long time because they made sure tough shots."
In the final 12:35, USC allowed only four made field goals. USC's defense led them back and was spotlighted in the final minute. After Elijah Stewart forced a turnover on the inbounds play, USC had a block party on Troy's penultimate possession:
J-Mac Takes Control
With Bennie Boatwright out for six weeks, USC needed someone to step up offensively. Andy Enfield and the coaching staff planned for that to be a group effort, but it has been the other team captain doing yeoman's work. In the three games since Boatwright's injury, Jordan McLaughlin has scored 63 points. He had a game-high 21 on Saturday night against Troy, including the big bucket to put USC ahead and two free throws to help ice the game.
McLaughlin can get into the lane so smoothly with his dribbling ability. "He has a natural talent," Enfield said. But that has always been a part of McLaughlin's game. What is different this year, particularly the last three games, is his decision making once he gets into he lane. McLaughlin has become the player that Enfield envisioned when he was able to sway him as his first big recruit at USC.
"Last year, he shot a much higher percentage [than his freshman season] and was terrific. He had a great season," Enfield said. "This year, he's taken it to another level. The last three or four weeks, he's been as good as any guard in the nation. He's as good as any point guard. I wouldn't trade him for any point guard in the nation.
"He is just playing at a high level. He's making shots, making plays for his teammates. He's defending and he's leading our team. That's why we're 10-0."
After playing only their second game in 14 days on Saturday night due to finals, USC has a quick turnaround, playing Cornell at the Galen Center on Monday. The Big Red has struggled early in the year. It has a 2-6 record after losing to Wyoming by 19 points on Saturday. It was the fourth double-digit loss for the Ivy Leaguers. Matt Morgan, who set the freshman scoring record for the conference last season, leads Cornell averaging 18.6 points per game, including 34 in a win over Northeastern that helped him earn Player of the Week honors two weeks ago.
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