Cornell senior guard Robert Hatter had made four of his 35 three-point attempts this season. He made four in the first half. Stone Gettings banked another 3-pointer in. That's the type of first half it was for USC.
Cornell jumped out to a 16-6 lead in the first five minutes and the Trojans had to claw their way back to a three-point halftime lead Monday night at the Galen Center. Cornell made 50 percent (7 of 14) of its three-point attempts in the first half.
"Their gameplan was to shoot the three," USC head coach Andy Enfield said. "They shot 30 threes and made 12. They banked one or two in. They got some rolls. They made some clean looks. They had a gameplan and three guys made four each. That's how they stayed in the game."
In the second half, Cornell's outside shooting slipped a bit (5 of 16, 31.3 percent) and USC was able to pull away for a 79-67 victory in its opening game of the Las Vegas Classic tournament which will continue later in the week in Sin City.
It wasn't the prettiest win with USC starting slow and missing a number of open looks, but the Trojans found a way to improve to 11-0, remaining one of six unbeaten teams in the country -- a fact that Enfield found perplexing.
"We have a long way to go. We have to get better," Enfield said. "We're 11-0. Honestly, I have no idea how we're 11-0, but we are."
"That means our players have worked hard. They play together. We're extremely proud of them because when you're mixing so many new guys, they have to learn that."
One of those new guys, Minnesota graduate transfer Charles Buggs had his most productive outing as a Trojan scoring a season-high nine points with seven rebounds off the bench. His efforts complimented Chimezie Metu, who scored 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting, down low where USC dominated with a 42-28 advantage in the paint and a 43-28 edge in rebounds. Jordan McLaughlin scored 16 points to go along with nine assists to only one turnover.
Cornell was led by Gettings' 22 points and six rebounds. Hatter added 20 points, but needed 18 field goal attempts, including missing all three of his second half three-point attempts. Matt Morgan added 15 points, but missed eight three-point attempts.
Here's three takeaways from USC's win over Cornell on Monday night:
Sluggish Once Again
It has become a common refrain: Trojans trail early. Cornell's early 10-point lead was the sixth time this season USC has fallen behind by nine or more points. The majority of those struggles have been to start games. USC has tied or led in second half scoring in all 11 games. Surprisingly, they have also led at halftime of all but two games, yet six times they've trailed by nine points only to come back and win.
On Saturday, after struggling to defeat Troy, Andy Enfield said the starters had to play better defense to open halves. Monday, he said a lineup shakeup may be necessary.
"I could change the starting lineup, so that's probably a coaching error on my part. We keep getting behind early in the game, so I just have to either change the starting lineup or they have to start making some more shots."
"There's been many games when we're down double digits at the six, seven minute mark. With 14 minutes left in the first half, we're down 10. It's hard to come back every game like that. "
Against Cornell, USC used a 9-0 run in the middle of the first half to get back into the game. The run was capped by an alley-oop dunk to Chimezie Metu and a fast break dunk by Charles Buggs. Both buckets came after Cornell turnovers.
Because of how up and down the Trojans have been, one of the things being emphasized by Enfield has been creating extra possessions. If you have more opportunities to score the basket, you have a much higher chance of actually scoring more baskets.
"Because we're so young, we're a little streaky at times offensively, so we need all those extra possessions we can get," Enfield said.
USC gains extra possessions with offensive rebounds on one end and defensive tallies at the other. Against Cornell, the Trojans had 11 offensive rebounds to go along with 10 blocks and six steals. Elijah Stewart had four of those blocks and two steals. USC turned the ball over a season-low seven times and was +20 in the four categories with the Big Red having six offensive rebounds, two blocks and three steals while turning the ball over 11 times.
It has been USC's recipe for success this season. Looking at USC's national rankings, nothing offensively pops on the stat sheet. While a team like UCLA is ranked in the top 10 in 12 of the 32 categories (some being repetitive) on the NCAA's stat ranking site, USC is top 10 in only two: blocks per game and win-loss percentage where it is tied at the top with the Bruins.
But it is the extra possession categories where the Trojans have excelled. USC entered Monday's game averaging 6.7 blocks -- seventh best in the nation. The Trojans are top 20 in fewest turnovers and turnovers per game. They lead the Pac-12 in steals per game and are top 30 in assist-to-turnover ratio.
USC also does a great job defensively. Not only does it have a top 40 field goal percentage defense, but Enfield's squad does it without fouling. Against Cornell, USC committed just 10 fouls, allowing the Big Red just two free throws.
Senior Super Sub
Charles Buggs was averaging just 8.1 minutes per game entering the night. The senior hadn't been able to routinely break into the rotation even with Bennie Boatwright out with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Buggs had his own MCL injury that had bothered him throughout his career at Minnesota before becoming a Trojan.
Arthroscopic knee surgery to clean up the injury after he arrived at USC in September kept him from participating much in preseason camp, which has slowed him from contributing right away. Buggs' minutes have been limited by continued issues with the knee as well as a hamstring tweak he suffered during warmups before a game.
Monday night he showed his capabilities.
Buggs played a season-high 23 minutes, surpassing his previous best just three minutes into the second half. He quickly came into the game when Nick Rakocevic got into early foul trouble and brought energy on the defensive end to help the Trojans fight their way back from the early deficit.
His work in the first half led Andy Enfield to make a second half change he hadn't done before this year. Enfield inserted Buggs into the lineup to start the second half and sat Rakocevic. The move paid dividends on both ends.
"We always usually start the starting lineup in the second half, but [Buggs] was playing so well in the first half and he was giving us great energy," Enfield said. "Then Nick came back in and played really well in the second half."
Buggs finished with season highs in points (9), rebounds (7), assists (3) and tied his season best with a pair of steals. Rakocevic, who was scoreless in the first half, scored eight points and had four rebounds and a block in in nine second half minutes.
"I'm just trying to help the team, especially on defense," Buggs said. "I try to help a little with scoring. I push effort and energy."
USC heads to Las Vegas for its final two games of the Las Vegas Classic. The Trojans will have a challenge on their hands with a solid Missouri State team. The Bears are 8-3 after a 20-point drubbing of Chicago State in an early Las Vegas Classic matchup with Chicago State. They take care of the basketball, averaging only 11.1 turnovers and have a true rim protector in Obediah Church, who is averaging nearly three blocks per game.
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