On Sunday, USC won going away against Washington, pulling away in the final five minutes of the game.
On Wednesday, USC looked to again be running away with the game only to have the Huskies make things interesting in the final five minutes before USC finally captured a 78-73 victory at the T-Mobile Arena.
Everything that had been going well in the second half after the Trojans had erased a 10-point first half deficit, suddenly they struggled at. USC had only five turnovers in the first 33 minutes, but had three in the final 6:03. The Trojans had made 19 consecutive free throws to start the game and then missed five of their next eight starting with a brick at 3:15. They had forced Washington mistakes and then capitalized with 18 dunks and layups throughout the game, but only one of those came after Chimezie Metu's slam with 4:44 remaining put the Trojans up by 10 points.
Washington began chipping away in earnest starting after USC pushed the lead back to nine with 2:18 remaining. Two misses by Metu in the paint and some 'Olé' defense by Jordan McLaughlin on a Washington possession enabled the Huskies to cut it to six. After Shaqquan Aaron hit one of two free throws, Matisse Thybulle drained a three to make it a four-point game. USC split another pair of free throws and a Malik Dime offensive board and putback made it a three-point game.
The Huskies had a chance to tie the game after two more free throw clanks. David Crisp finished with 22 points, but being too intent on shooting himself he couldn't make the game-tying shot, forcing a lengthy attempt several feet beyond the three-point line. USC corralled the rebound and finally made two free throws to seal the victory.
It was an exasperating finish, but the Trojans found a way to win 78-73.
Metu finished one rebound shy of his seventh double-double of the season. He scored a game-high 24 points on 10 of 17 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds, including four on the offensive end. He also swatted two shots and had a steal.
USC finished with 15 steals, tying a season high. McLaughlin tied his career high with five swipes to go along with 11 points, six assists and three rebounds. Bennie Boatwright scored 13 points despite shooting 3 of 10. Aaron added 10 points.
Washington guard David Crisp led the Huskies with 22 points while forward Noah Dickerson had another strong game against USC. After scoring a career-high 27 points in the last game, Dickerson scored 18 points, including 12 in the first half. Thybulle shot the three ball well against USC for a second straight matchup, hitting four of his five attempts and finishing with 14 points.
Here's three takeaways from USC's 78-73 win over the Huskies in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament on Wednesday night:
Creating Extra Possessions
Andy Enfield has talked in the past about the importance of being able to get up more shots than the opponent by creating extra opportunities both on the offensive and defensive ends. It proved to be a difference maker against Washington on Wednesday night.
Even though USC was outshot 54 percent to 42 percent on field goals and was woeful on 3-pointers, hitting just 4 of 16 (25%) while Washington made 8 of 18 (44%), the Trojans were able to find a way to win. The Trojans collected 15 steals, tying their season high. They forced 17 Husky turnovers and scored 18 points. USC had a couple of careless turnovers in the final five minutes of the game, but finished with just eight turnovers, thanks to just three in the first half. Jordan McLaughlin was especially pristine with the ball, dishing out six assists to zero turnovers.
To go along with their +9 turnover margin, the Trojans also grabbed five more offensive rebounds than Washington, finishing with 12. That's 14 extra opportunities. USC ended up having seven more field goal attempts and also got to the free throw line for 18 additional attempts than the Huskies.
Even when they didn't shoot their best and couldn't stop Washington from making shots, USC still was able to find a way to win.
Playing to Competition
I took the exact thing I wrote Saturday and made a couple of italicized changes:
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 Wednesday as USC fell behind 37-27 in the first half and trailed a Washington team that entered with an 12-game losing streak for the entire 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 outscore everyone. Other than the final five minutes against Arizona State and nearly the final 2:18 against Washington when USC saw a nine-point lead dip to three, USC's lackluster effort against inferior opponents haven't proved to be an issue as ASU 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.
Will USC actually lock in now? The Trojans have rarely put together a full 40 minutes this season, which shows just how much potential the group has that it can win while having lulls most games.
"We've just got to battle for 40 minutes, come out strong, and just try to stay on top," Jordan McLaughlin said. He was referring specifically to UCLA, but it applies to any game the Trojans play from here on out this season.
"It's on us as players," McLaughlin said. "The coaches do a good job getting us ready for the game. Defensive strategy and everything, they set it up perfectly, and it's on us to come and play with energy."
State Your Case
Should USC be in the NCAA tournament? Their wins might not be pretty all the time, but the Trojans do have 24 wins. Going into the Pac-12 tournament, it seemed like a win over Washington should be enough with them starting the weekend on the right side of the bubble.
USC head coach Andy Enfield states his case for the Trojans being a part of March Madness:
With the win, USC now has a matchup with rival UCLA, the No. 3 seed in the tournament. The crosstown showdown ended with a pair of home victories this season. The deciding game three is slated to begin at 8:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.
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