Samer Dhillon is the only player that has been with head coach Andy Enfield during his full four-year tenure at USC. The walk-on senior has been known much more for his off-the-court accolades than his efforts to help the Trojans win on the hardwood. He has only played 27 minutes in his USC career, but the neuroscience and pre-med major owns and runs a multi-million dollar investment advisory firm and launched a mobile health clinic at USC in between doing Alzheimers research.
But on Senior Day Saturday afternoon, Dhillon stole the show. With more than 40 family members and friends in attendance, the senior forward played only one minute but capped off USC's 74-58 win over Washington with a corner three for his first basket of the season.
"Every day in shootaround that baseline jumper is my shot pretty much," Dhillon said. When I got the ball I was like ‘You know what? This one is going in. No questions asked.’"
After his first career three-pointer swished through, Dhillon turned to the crowd with a big smile on his face. He pointed to his fans. He thumped his chest and put up three fingers to let everyone know the value of his shot."
"Sam is really the key to our 23 wins this year," Enfield joked in a post-game radio interview. "He’s a special young man. He comes from a great family. He’s an unbelievable teammate."
"Sam has been practicing that shot for 4 years now...What a great shot."
As soon as the final horn sounded, the USC bench ran out to the court to celebrate with Dhillon.
It was the perfect finish to a USC game that once again featured an imperfect start. For the 12th time this season, the Trojans rallied from a deficit of nine or more points. They fell behind the Huskies 14-4 early and trailed for the majority of the first half. Only when USC started defending late in the first half did it turn the tide. The Trojans forced four turnovers and blocked two shots during a 15-3 run to finish the half, taking a 39-33 lead into the break.
At almost the exact same spot in the second half, USC went on a 15-4 run to pull away after Washington kept the Trojans lead around five points for the first 15 minutes of the second half.
Jordan McLaughlin finished one assist shy of back-to-back double-doubles leading USC with 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting. He also had four of USC's 11 steals, the Trojans' seventh game with a double-digit steal total.
The home team also finished with nine blocks, giving the Trojans 175 on the season, seven shy of last season's school record 182. Chimezie Metu collected three of those swats, giving him 103 for his career, which moved him into eighth place in USC history. Metu also made 7 of his 11 field goal attempts to finish with 17 points. Nick Rakocevic made all five of his field goal attempts, adding 10 points off the bench.
Washington forward Noah Dickerson finished with a game-high 27 points, besting the career-high 23 points he scored earlier in the week against UCLA. Matisse Thybulle finished with 19 points on 6 of 10 shooting, including making five of his seven attempts from distance. The rest of the Huskies were 0 for 12 on three-point attempts. USC wasn't much better making just 4 of 14 three-point tries.
Despite its outside struggles, USC shot a season-high 58.7 percent for the game, its fourth consecutive game shooting over 50 percent.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 74-58 win over the Huskies on Saturday afternoon:
McLaughlin in March
Whenever he wanted, USC junior Jordan McLaughlin crossed over and went right by whichever Washington defender was trying to stay in front of him. The Huskies could only foul McLaughlin with their point guard David Crisp fouling out after playing just 18 minutes and reserve Dan Kingma being in foul trouble all night as well. McLaughlin got into the lane and displayed an array of floaters and twisting layups, finishing with 22 points -- his first 20-point performance in nearly two months.
"It's March. You've got to play your best basketball," McLaughlin said. "It's about that time for March Madness. There's just something that gets me. The better the games. The higher at stake. I feel like that's when I perform best."
In his last three games, McLaughlin has 29 assists. The Trojans point guard has been more aggressive and has come alive down the stretch, which is exactly what the team needs as it heads into the conference tournament and potential postseason play.
"Jordan is doing what he wants to do, is relied upon to do and what he is expected to do for us because he’s our leader," Enfield said. "When he plays at this level, he gets everyone involved. He’s playing at a very high level."
The Trojans are at their best when McLaughlin rides that fine line between attacking the basket to score and attacking the lane to create openings for teammates. When McLaughlin and Chimezie Metu can run the pick and roll successfully, the Trojans always have a go-to play when needed. Any time a play breaks down or the shot clock is winding down, McLaughlin can get a high ball screen and either go to the rim or flip the ball up and let Metu do the rest.
"All you've got to do is just throw up by the rim and he'll go get it no matter where it's at," McLaughlin said. "When you can give him the ball in open space, he can handle it; he can pass it; he can now shoot better than he did last year."
Playing to Competition
All season it has seemed that USC has played to the level of their competition. The Trojans have played really well at times against good teams, but have also looked bad against some of the worst teams on their schedule. It happened once again on Saturday as USC fell behind 14-4 early and trailed a Washington team that entered with an 11-game losing streak for more than 16 minutes in the first half.
The difference is always the defensive intensity. When USC locks in against bad teams, they start getting turnovers and go on a run that has allowed them to overcome so many early deficits this season. For some reason, against poor competition, the Trojans never have that fire from the onset. Instead, they play pick-up defense -- porous on-ball defending and clogging up the middle, but leaving wide open shooters.
Eventually, Andy Enfield has been able to get through to his team and then the Trojans finally start battling on both ends rather than thinking they can just thinking they can outscore everyone. Other than the final five minutes against Arizona State, USC's lackluster effort against inferior opponents haven't proved to be an issue as that is the only loss outside the RPI 100 for the Trojans. But after the first round of the Pac-12 tournament, there will be no more pushovers on the schedule. Now's the time to lock in and give your best effort every night.
Above .500 in the Pac
With the win over Washington, USC is assured a winning conference record for the first time in Andy Enfield's tenure and the first time since the 2010-11 season. Enfield and his two top assistants, Tony Bland and Jason Hart, have built the program from the ground up after taking over a team that had become devoid of talent and team cohesion.
"It's a complete 180," senior Sam Dhillon said of the team culture. "The first two years, the whole dynamic of the team, we didn't hang out as much as a whole team. We were kind of divided the whole first year. I'm the only guy from the whole first team left.
"Most people don't know, USC basketball now is pretty good. We're doing well, right? The first two years of the whole tenure here it was just hard to stick it out. That's why a lot of guys left, transferred or just flat out quit the team. I'm happy I stuck it out. I saw a vision that we would have good guys around the program and build from there, so I'm happy with all Jordan and Elijah and Chimezie and Bennie have done for USC."
Enfield said the coaching staff had a short-term plan and a long-term plan with the ultimate goals of winning a Pac-12 title and a national championship still in front of the team.
"We’re not there yet in our long-term play," Enfield said. "That takes time. It takes talent. It takes development. But to go to the tournament last year from where we were two and three years ago, those kids deserve a lot of credit."
"Any time you take over a program, you know there are challenges depending on where you go and what the situation is with the talent level and the team, the atmosphere and the culture and the particular support," Enfield said. "When we came in here as a staff, we basically said our kids will go to class, they will develop, they will engage the campus community and try to be nice to people so people around campus will get to know them and give them the full college experience. And they will play hard. We didn't promise any wins, but we were going to try to build this thing the right way with a culture that would be conducive to winning."
Part of that culture was succeeding not only on the court, but in the classroom where USC has set the basketball team GPA record three times in four years. On the court, the staff expects the players to give effort and want to be constantly improving.
"We have a great staff that works with our players on a daily basis," Enfield said. "The players have a desire to be great. They deserve the credit. They developed quicker than most players would or should. If you look at the progression from our freshmen to sophomores with Metu and Boatwright this year. Then our freshmen come in. De'Anthony Melton and Jonah Mathews, I mean wow."
”[The players] came to USC to do this and make a difference and be the reason why this team wins 20 games and they are. The players deserve all the credit. We put the plan in place and try to develop them, but the players have to go out there and win games. Guys like Jordan McLaughlin, Elijah Stewart, Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright, they came to USC to do what they’re doing and now they're doing it.
Re-do. The Trojans have the unenviable task of trying to beat the same team two games in a row, which presents its own challenges. Washington is hoping to have Markelle Fultz, one of the top players in the country back, after he's missed five of the last seven Huskies games with a knee injury. With Fultz scoring 20 points in the first matchup, Washington was close throughout the game until USC pulled away for an eight-point win. But now the Huskies are on a 12-game losing streak and have little to play for in the Pac-12 tournament...which is why Fultz could end up sitting.
Enfield didn't seem to think it was an advantage or a disadvantage to play the same team back to back.
"That’s who we have to play and that's who we're going to play. I'm not sure if there's any advantage or not. I do know that Washington is a very dangerous team. They are explosive and they have good players."
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