Andy Enfield said last week USC's starting lineup had to defend better and needed to get the team out to a lead rather than routinely digging a deficit.
On Thursday, De'Anthony Melton made his first start in place of Nick Rakocevic as the Trojans went to a four-guard lineup. USC's instant impact freshman helped the Trojans jump out to a quick 6-0 start, grabbing a lead it did not relinquish. USC led wire to wire, taking an 83-75 win over a Missouri State team that stayed in the game by making more three-pointers (14 for 36) than two-pointers (10 for 28).
Elijah Stewart led all scorers with 21 points, making four of his six 3-pointers and finishing 7 of 10 from the field. Jordan McLaughlin added 19 points and five assists while Chimezie Metu was an efficient 5 for 7 for 13 points. Metu fell a rebound shy of notching his fourth double-double of the season.
USC shot 54.7 percent and dominated in the paint, 38-18, while Missouri State was content to fire from deep. The Bears attempted more 3-pointers in each half and were just 3 for 14 on two-pointers in the first half. Alize Johnson led Missouri State with 17 points and nine rebounds. He made three of his six 3-pointers. Ronnie Rousseau III also had 17 points.
Here's three takeaways from USC's win over Missouri State on Thursday night:
USC switched up its lineup and fired out of the hole. Chimezie Metu threw down a left-handed dunk on the open possession and then slammed home a De'Anthony Melton lob pass the next time down the court. A Jordan McLaughlin layup put the Trojans ahead 6-0. After two buckets by Missouri State, USC reeled off another eight straight points to take a 14-5 advantage. The Trojans pushed their lead up to 14 points in the final minute of the first half and carried an 11-point lead into halftime.
The addition of Melton in the lineup gave USC the immediate spark on both ends that they had been missing to begin the last couple of games. After the game Andy Enfield said the lineup change was dictated by the matchup with Missouri State, but don't be surprised if you hear Melton's name called in the pre-game lineup announcements in the future.
Stew The Fire
As Elijah Stewart goes so go the Trojans? That's how it has seemed at times this season. In the seven games Stewart has scored at least 15 points, USC has won by at least seven points each game. Only twice has it been under double digits -- against BYU and tonight when the Bears hit a meaningless buzzer beater (except for the Missouri State boosters sitting in front of me that covered the spread just because of that basket).
However, when Stewart has struggled offensively, USC's margin of victory dwindles. In USC's closest games -- a two-point win over Texas A&M and five-point wins over SMU and Troy -- Stewart has scored 11 points or less. He only scored 11 against Omaha and what should have been a rout was only a 10-point win. Same thing against Cornell. What should be a big blowout was only a 12-point win with Stewart scoring six points.
"When you play 35 minutes and you get the shot attempts and the opportunity, we expect you to play well," Enfield said. "Elijah played well tonight. When he has an off game and goes 2 for 10 like he did last game, we don't play so well.
"Players win games and they have to perform. If you're going to have a good team and a consistent team throughout the season, players that are on the court playing minutes have to play well."
In his third year in the system, Stewart knows how to work his way into open shots, so when he isn't on, the Trojans aren't capitalizing on opportunities.
"Usually, most of the shots I shoot are open, so if I'm not connecting of course the team is going to be taking a hit," Stewart said.
Jordan McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu have both taken their game to a different level than they were at last year and it's paying off big dividends for the Trojans. USC has a veteran ballhandler that is making all the right choices and a dominant force in the middle making plays on the offensive end and protecting the rim defensively.
"Jordan is always under control," Enfield said. "He changes speeds and he finds people. He's made so many improvements with his decision making, seeing the floor and delivering the ball at the right time."
"He's just a tremendous point guard and Chimezie, everybody knows how far he's come. He's a totally different player than he was last year."
Every game that passes seems to build a chemistry between the two players. USC has incorporated a number of two-man game sets where Metu and McLaughlin work off each other in pick-and-roll situations. Against Missouri State, the two ran pick-and-roll sets sometimes six or seven plays in a row. McLaughlin does such a nice job of being patient and passing to the open man rather than forcing shots or passes into the post that USC's offense thrives.
After Metu got off to a hot start with back-to-back dunks in the first half, Missouri State started sagging and sending double teams, which just created more open looks for other Trojans. Then on one possession when USC went to its M&M pick and roll on one side of the floor, the entire Missouri State defense collapsed into the paint leaving McLaughlin with multiple options. (He found Shaqquan Aaron, who knocked down a wing three.)
"J-Mac is a pick-and-roll wizard and it helps that Chimezie can put his head at the rim," Stewart said. "I benefit from that from the back action, but J-Mac coming off those screens is deadly."
USC takes on Wyoming in the winner's bracket at Orleans Arena on Friday after the Cowboys beat DePaul, 72-58. The Trojans have an opportunity to finish off a perfect non-conference schedule, if they can finish the Las Vegas Classic 3-0.
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