Thursday night hoops

The Trojans had just one game scheduled for Thursday evening, but it was a doubleheader for USC fans as they had a chance to catch an O.J. Mayo appetizer before a USC – Stanford main course.

In the first game, Mayo's Huntington Highlanders, the number six ranked team in the nation, took on the St. Patrick's Celtics, which came into the game as the nation's number one ranked team.

St. Patrick's ended up with a 78-76 win, but O.J. Mayo stole the show.

He finished the game with 47 points and was slightly off on a last-gasp three pointer that would have won the game in overtime.

But what Mayo showed on the court was so much more than points and statistics.

He is such a fluid player and is so confident with the ball, treating it as simply an extension of his hand. He possesses great court vision and is one of those players who raises the game of everyone around him. In fact, he'll be a much better player when he's surrounded by guys who can take advantage of his entry and outlet passes.

St. Patrick's was a much better team than Huntington in terms of overall skill, but Mayo kept his squad in it until the end, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot despite being hampered for much of the end by an apparent injury to his left leg.

If there is one aspect of Mayo's game that could improve, it's on defense. It occasionally appears that he takes off defensive possessions and he was beaten one-on-one on several occasions. Although, it's tough to expect 110% on defense when he's his team's only offensive threat.

To say that Mayo donning cardinal and gold next season is an exciting prospect would be an understatement. He can do so many different things for a basketball team that he won't be able to help but make the Trojans even better.

And making this current USC basketball team even better should have the Galen Center buzzing.

In Thursday's nightcap, the Trojans used speed, quick hands and clutch shots to beat Stanford 69-65 and settle into sole possession of third place in the Pac-10.

Here's how it unfolded, start to finish.

Pregame: While the announcers are discussing the game, the one who isn't Paul Westphal declares, "The last time USC and Stanford got together, ‘SC got gangster slapped."

I guess I can't argue with that. At least they were gentlemen about the whole thing and pronounced the "er."

As for the game, the Trojans played a solid 40 minutes of basketball.

18:40 – The Trojans have gotten off three shots at this point, and none of them have been blocked. At least that puts the Cardinal off their 700 block pace they were at during this point in the previous meeting. Nick Young hits a jump shot to put the first points on the board for USC.

17:25: Stanford's Mitch Johnson hits a 3 pointer. He may not lead the Cardinal in scoring at the end of the game, but he will set the Galen Center record for "shots taken by someone who looks like the guy from Kid ‘n Play."

15:56: Taj Gibson hits a running hook shot, going right at both Lopez boys. Two notes to this shot. First, it's a huge basket for Gibson. Sure, he wasn't the only one getting his shots swatted the last time out, but he's been slumping over the past two games and playing well against Brook and Robin Lopez should boost his confidence tremendously.

Secondly, that is the first and last time that I'll refer to both Brook and Robin Lopez. From now on, they are simply "a Lopez twin." This is mostly because, for some reason, I couldn't keep it straight as to which one was which, and partly because I'm still not convinced there are actually two of them.

15:45: RouSean Cromwell registers his second blocked shot on a Lopez. That makes two tonight and his presence in the starting lineup has been unbelievable. The Trojans need another big body inside to help out Gibson because there are going to be games where Gibson either needs help inside or gets into foul trouble early. Having Cromwell playing like this should help out immensely.

14:47: Nick Young throws in a reverse lay-up for the play of the night to this point. The Trojans are doing a fantastic job of attacking the inside and going right at the Lopez boys with strength. They've realized that as long as they are either going strong to the basket or providing some sort of misdirection, they can get by or around the shot blockers.

13:46: Gibson hits a nice jump shot before a Lopez can get over to block it. The Trojans absolutely know they can outrun the Cardinal and when they move without the ball on offense, they're finding themselves wide open.

11:52: Lodrick Stewart forces a jump shot and draws iron. That's what worries me about having so many guys with similar talents. Stewart has really been a non-factor in the game up to this point and he knows that he's talented enough to get his share of shots, so it was only a matter of time until he started launching them against the rhythm of the offense. He just needs to continue to operate in the offense and the shots will come.

8:15: Of course, a few possessions later, Stewart hits a straightaway three in the context of the offense. That's taking his shots in rhythm. Pruitt, Young and Gibson are the centerpieces of the Trojan offense, but if Stewart can hit those shots when they come to him, the Trojans will be difficult to beat.

6:55: Stewart with another 3 and a huge boost in momentum for the Trojans.

4:55: Pruitt hits a three. This year's team still shoots the 3-ball, but there are so many differences between the 3's this team shoots and the 3's that the teams over the last several years shot. This season, just about every shot is coming as a result of the offensive flow. People are moving off screens and finding themselves wide open. The last few years, three pointers would just be tossed toward the hoop without even exploring a pass. They were always the first option. This season, it seems like there is a reason for every offensive result. Each shot happens because it's the best option, not just because it's the first.

2:17: Of course, the Trojan offense has been falling apart for the past three possessions. There's been no authoritative decision making. Guys are getting caught in the air and just flat-out dropping the ball. Teams are going to go through spells like this. It will be interesting to see if USC can gather the momentum back and right the ship.

:07: Nick Young with a ridiculous fade-away jumper after getting mugged during the shot. That's huge for momentum heading into halftime. The Trojans hold a 34-26 lead. Pretty much anything was going to be better than being down by 17, as was the case when USC and Stanford last got together.

Second Half

18:55: Cromwell with a big slam. He's having a real positive impact on this game. The commentators can't stop raving about him. Normally they're all over someone who doesn't deserve it, but Cromwell is really earning all of this.

18:17 – Pruitt with another 3. If Pruitt, Young and Stewart keep shooting this well, the Cardinal don't stand a chance. And on that shot, Cromwell worked to get himself in rebounding position on Lopez. Ok, that's it. No more gratuitous Cromwell appreciation.

17:48 – Cromwell just lost a possession with a backcourt. He made my resolution easier than I thought it would be. I'm still enjoying watching him though.

17:36: I feel better now that I realize the announcers are having as much trouble distinguishing the Lopez twins as I am.

8:40: Stewart hits a huge 3 off an inbounds play. He follows that up with a steal but can't finish. And as I'm writing that, he steals the ball again and starts a fast break that ends with a Pruitt lay-up.

7:05: Stewart misses a 3. Apparently he saw the graphic that FSN just put up that showed Brandon Granville owns the record for 3 pointers in USC history, with 218. Stewart is right behind him with 216.

5:01: Nick Young hits a short jumper in the lane. That possession illustrated the biggest difference between Henry Bibby and Tim Floyd. Stanford switched to a zone defense and confused the Trojans for a possession or two. The Trojans then took a timeout, Floyd drew up a play and USC came right out of the timeout with a play to take advantage and score points. It's like watching a real basketball team.

1:11: The Trojans catch a break when Stanford's Fred Washington trips and falls on Nick Young with just 1 second left on the shot clock. Young misses the first free throw, but a huge tip by the Trojans' Keith Wilkinson keeps the ball in the Trojans' possession.

1:04: Stewart misses the first free throw after being fouled, but another fantastic play by Wilkinson keeps the ball in the Trojans' hands. USC should be putting this game away for good, but they aren't hitting free throws. They'll still win this game, but this isn't the way to cap a great effort against a solid team.

:46.6: Nick Young hits two big free throws.

:39.9: Gabe Pruitt draws an offensive foul on Stanford's Landry Fields. That's the game.

:30.0: A Lopez takes a 3 pointer from about 40 feet. This guy could shoot from 85 feet and I'd be confident of it going in. I never want to play against him again. Especially since I still believe that there's only one of them.

:04: A great inbounds pass from Taj Gibson to Gabe Pruitt ices the game and clinches USC's 20th win of the season.

Heading into the contest, this was a game that scared me.

I was comfortable with the Arizona road trip. Even though the Trojans dropped one to Arizona State, the win over the Wildcats was enough to salvage the trip even before the loss.

But that defeat, coupled with a home loss to Stanford, could have started a spiral that lasted through the season's final four games and into the Pac-10 tournament. And that could have been devastating for the Trojans' tournament chances, considering how big of a role late-season momentum plays when it comes to the committee selecting teams for the NCAA tournament.

It sounds odd to say in relation to USC basketball. The NCAA tournament. With all the success the football team has been enjoying recently, the success that the basketball team enjoyed a few years ago seems even further removed.

With their win over Stanford, their 20th victory of the season, the USC Trojans' basketball team may have bought themselves a ticket to the tournament. Not a single player on the Trojans' roster has been to the dance. Let's hope they're fast learners, because they've only got the next few games to learn all the steps.


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