It wasn’t quite a duel in the desert, but when all was said and done in Tempe, Ariz., USC had clawed its way to a hard-fought, 63-61 victory over Arizona State on Thursday night.
In a game that was for all intents and purposes a measuring stick for USC (12-9, 4-4), the team found a way to win despite a sluggish start and a potential game-winning three-point opportunity by Arizona State senior guard Ty Abbott as time expired.
Behind six early turnovers, the Trojans quickly found themselves down 19-8 before showing signs of life in the Valley of the Sun.
“[USC coach Kevin O’Neill] told us that even though we committed some early turnovers at the offensive end, it starts at the defensive end,” said junior forward Nikola Vucevic.
Paced by seven quick points off the bench from senior guard Donte Smith, USC managed to whittle away at the Sun Devils’ lead, and found itself down by only two after 20 minutes of play, 31-29.
In the second half, USC relied on its offensive bread and butter, the post presence of Vucevic. The junior forward put together his own eight-point run to keep the visiting Trojans within striking distance at 43-39.
Down the stretch, freshman guard Maurice Jones looked to put the game firmly in the hands of the Trojans, logging seven of his 14 total points during a pivotal 11-2 scoring run.
Although the Trojans looked to be in control with just less than seven minutes remaining, their first road win in more than a month would not come without a late-game scare.
Senior forward Rihards Kuksiks found a hot hand from three-point range, as he hit three baskets from behind the arc to cut USC’s lead to 57-56 with 3:06 left in the game.
While a three-point shot by ASU’s sophomore guard Trent Lockett once again cut the deficit to one at 62-61, the Sun Devils (9-11, 1-7) could not find a way to secure their first home win in conference play as their final chance from the right corner fell off the back rim as time expired.
For the Trojans, the win marked their first away from the Galen Center on the 2010-2011 season, and even more noteworthy, their first facing a zone defense.
“Even with the zone, in order to win on the road we have to play better at the defensive end,” Vucevic said. “Tonight that’s what we did even though Rihards [Kusiks] had a lot of points. And really that was the difference.”
Offensively, the team was largely led by Vucevic’s 26 points and Smith’s contribution off the bench with 11 points and four assists.
“I was much more aggressive in this game than I was in the game against California,” Vucevic said. “And tonight as a team I think we just showed we weren’t afraid to come back.”
USC continues its three-game road trip on Saturday afternoon at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., against host Arizona Wildcats.