On a night when No. 21 Oregon rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final 3:30 to knock off previously undefeated No. 2 UCLA, it looked like No. 22 USC might be headed for a similar fate Wednesday night in the Beaver State.
The Trojans led Oregon State by 19 after the first possession of the second half, but the Beavers slowly chipped away at the lead. USC didn't make a field goal in the final 5:39, allowing Oregon State to trim the deficit to single digits for the first time in the second half with 3:26 remaining. It eventually cut it to six points and had the ball with 21 seconds after a USC turnover, but couldn't get a basket to put more pressure on the Trojans.
USC (14-0, 1-0) held on for a 70-63 victory to snap a streak of seven straight losses at Gill Coliseum and remain among the nation's unbeaten, a group that was trimmed to five after the Bruins' loss. Oregon State fell to 4-10, 0-1 on the season.
The difference for USC to keep from following UCLA's early path was free throw shooting. USC struggled from the floor, but made the most of its trips to the charity stripe. The Trojans made their final 11 free throws and 18 of 22 in the second half while UCLA missed two of its three free throws in the final two minutes. One of UCLA's top shooters, Bryce Alford, an 86.5 percent shooter, missed the front end of the bonus with 10 seconds left when he had a chance to put the Bruins up three points rather than one.
Chimezie Metu, a 51.3 percent free throw shooter last year, set career highs making 9 of 10 attempts. He finished with a team-high 19 points and eight rebounds.
Jordan McLaughlin made 7 of 8 free throw attempts, but his lone miss broke a streak of 26 straight makes over the past two and a half weeks. He finished with 10 points while only shooting two shots from the field -- the least he has taken in his USC career. Jonah Mathews also had 10 points.
"It was a very physical game, a lot of free throws, a lot of fouls," USC head coach Andy Enfield told the Associated Press. "We had to play more of a slower game than we'd like to, but we grinded it out."
The six minutes weren't the only time USC struggled shooting the ball. That was a consistent theme all night. The Trojans were outshot 39.0 percent to 37.3 after Oregon State shot 51.6 percent in the second half.
USC was outscored 32-20 in the paint as Drew Eubanks had a 15-15 night, but Stephen Thompson Jr. led the Beavers with a game-high 24 points. He finished 10 of 19 from the field, but missed seven free throw attempts (3-10) -- the same number of points USC won by.
Here's three takeaways from USC's win at Oregon State Wednesday night in Corvallis:
Tale of Two Defensive Halves
USC scored 34 points and 36 points in the two halves, yet one was a tremendous success and the other was a disaster.
In the first half, USC's zone defense gave Oregon State fits. The Beavers shot only 25 percent (7 of 28) in he first 20 minutes while primarily facing a 2-3 zone. The Trojans limited Oregon State's quality opportunities, giving up zero fast break points and only two second chance points. The Beavers scored just eight points in the paint and averaged a woeful 0.531 points per possession. USC took a 34-17 lead into halftime.
The second half saw Oregon State routinely get into the middle of the lane. They found a soft spot in USC's zone just below the free throw line and were often able to get the ball to a forward and pass big to big for baskets near the rim. Stephen Thompson Jr. also found room driving the ball and was 7 for 10 on two-point attempts in the second half. The Los Angeles native scored 19 of his career-high 24 points in the second half. Drew Eubanks also found the second half more amenable. After being 1 of 6 for two points in the first half, he was 4 for 5 and scored 13 second-half points.
Oregon State finished scoring 0.955 points per possession for the game.
Against a better team that can hit shots more consistently, particularly from outside where the Beavers were just 4 for 17 (23.5 percent) in the game, the Trojans have to play better defense. USC nearly let a 'gimme game' become in danger because it allowed a Tres Tinkle-less Oregon State team score 46 points in a half -- one more point than it scored for the entire game in a loss to Portland 10 days ago.
Welcome to Conference Play
Once you enter Pac-12 play, the intensity ratchets up. Players all know each other. Teams know one another's tendencies and game plans. Nothing comes easy. That lesson was learned quickly for two first-year Trojans.
Midway through the second half, Oregon State big man Drew Eubanks was called for throwing an elbow after clearing out following a defensive rebound. His elbow popped USC freshman Nick Rakocevic in the mouth sending him sprawling to the ground. The referees chose to take a look at the play to determine if the elbow was flagrant or intentional. Somehow, they came back with the decision that there should not have been a whistle on the play and rescinded the foul called.
Eubanks was right in the middle of a second controversial play with seven and a half minutes remaining. Daine Muller swished a three-pointer through the net to cut USC's lead to 11 points, but the action happened after the basket. As Charles Buggs and Eubanks wrestled for rebounding position, Buggs fell to the floor acting as if Eubanks had pushed him with his forearm. He grabbed at Eubanks forearm as he fell. But things heated up when Eubanks turned, looked down at Buggs and planted a stomp right in the inner thigh of Buggs' right leg.
Buggs, the Minnesota graduate transfer, was enraged. He jumped up and had to be yanked away from Eubanks by Jordan McLaughlin. A cluster of players had to be separated on the baseline near Oregon State's bench. After calming things down, the referees initiated a lengthy replay review. When things finally were settled, Eubanks was charged with a technical foul while teammate Tanner Sanders was ejected from the game for leaving the bench area.
After the game, Eubanks said he did not intentionally step on Buggs while Andy Enfield said he thought he did it on purpose.
McLaughlin knocked down both technical free throws and then hit a 3-pointer -- his only field goal made -- to complete a five-point possession. The play took the thunder out of the crowd for a bit and pushed USC's lead back to 16, giving the Beavers a bigger hole to try to dig out of in the final seven minutes.
Winning in Pac-12
The classic adage about being successful in the Pac-12 is to split on the road and win at home. The Trojans assured themselves of at least a split on the Oregon trip with the win Wednesday night. It was a significant win for USC because of the RPI effects. Per NCAA.com, Oregon State entered tonight's matchup No. 337 in the RPI, meaning a loss to the Beavers would send the Trojans on a significant slide from their spot at No. 12. A loss also would have effectively been a two-game swing in the Pac-12 standings since it is assumed that the Beavers won't beat any of the top tier teams USC hopes to compete with this season.
The win against Oregon State got USC off to a 1-0 start in conference play for the second year in a row and only the third time in the last six seasons. (USC hasn't started 2-0 in the Pac-12 since it became the Pac-12, last doing it in 2009-10 under Kevin O'Neill.)
But the Trojan victory also ended a streak that dates back to 2006-07. Nine straight times USC had taken the court in Pac-10/12 play as a ranked team it had been defeated. Wednesday night it got its first win as a ranked team since winning at No. 19 Arizona on Feb. 15, 2007. On that night, Lodrick Stewart and Nick Young both scored 26 points to sweep the season series from Lute Olson's Wildcats and earn USC its first win at the McKale Center in 21 years.
USC will definitely have its hands full on Friday night when the Trojans face their toughest opposition thus far this season. The Trojans head to Eugene to face No. 21 Oregon, who is coming off the dramatic last second win over UCLA on Wednesday night. The Ducks will have a chance to end a second unbeaten streak against the 14-0 Trojans while also attempting to keep their 34-game home win streak at Matthew Knight Arena and 10-game overall win streak.
The Ducks have five players averaging double figures led by Chris Boucher, who entered Wednesday scoring 14.5 points. Dilllon Brooks raised his average 0.9 points to 13.6 after scoring 23 points against the Bruins, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final second. He averaged 16.7 last season, but he appears to be back to full strength after injuries limited his minutes early in the season.
The game will be broadcast on FS1 at 7 p.m. PST.
Not a USCFootball.com member? Sign up now and you'll get a seven day FREE trial! Join the Peristyle Family and get all the great information from USC football practices, Trojan football and basketball games, access to the Peristyle and all of the premium recruiting updates on USCFootball.com! Become a member today!
Follow Shotgun on Twitter: @ShotgunSpr