Throughout USC’s 62-46 rout of Arizona State on Saturday night the Galen Center crowd could be heard chanting in unison, “One more year. One more year.”
From the pre-game ceremony to the final whistle, Saturday’s festivities were intended to honor the team’s graduating seniors — forward James Dunleavy, forward Marcus Simmons, guard Donte Smith and center Alex Stepheson — during their final home game, but the cheers coming from the Trojan student section were aimed at someone else: junior forward Nikola Vucevic.
Vucevic, who could potentially forgo his senior season in hopes of being selected in June’s NBA Draft, responded in a big way on what could have been his final game at Galen Center.
Paced by the Montenegro-native’s three-point baskets and hook shots, the Trojans (17-12, 9-7) easily beat the last place Sun Devils, never trailing after an early 5-3 deficit.
“It’s always nice to hear that,” Vucevic, who recorded his 18th double-double of the season with 20 points and 10 rebounds, said of the chants. “It shows people care. But I haven’t thought about it yet, and will discuss the decision after the season with my family and coach O’Neill.”
Though the junior stole the spotlight on Senior Night, the seniors also had a big role in the team’s fourth straight victory.
Stepheson had a dunk-filled double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) while limiting Arizona State forward Kyle Cain to a very quiet two points in 17 minutes of play.
Smith, took awhile to get going, connected on 3-of-12 from behind the three-point arc, pitching in with 12 points.
And true to the M.O. he has built over the last four years in a USC uniform, Simmons proved how vital he can be to the team’s success without even touching the ball.
Despite only taking one shot, Simmons held senior guard Ty Abbott, the Sun Devils’ second- leading scorer (12.6 points per game) to just one point on 0-of-7 shooting from the field. In addition, he led USC in assists with five that night.
“They [the seniors] have done an unbelievable job of keeping a great attitude for what has been a tough two years,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “And if Marcus Simmons isn’t the defensive player of the year in the conference, I don’t know who is.”
The Trojans took control of the game in the first half with what has brought them success all year: half-court defense.
After Vucevic put USC on top 8-7 with 16 minutes remaining in the first half, the Trojans gave up four points over the next 10 minutes.
Feeding off its defensive intensity, USC’s offense went on a 23-7 run to close the half, while surrendering a season-low 18 points on 28.6 percent shooting by the Sun Devils (10-18, 2-14).
In the second half, the Sun Devils missed their first six attempts from the field and USC capitalized, building its lead to a game-high 26 points, as it led 51-25 with 10 minutes remaining.
USC will look to continue its four-game win streak when it concludes the Pac-10 regular season with a trip up north to the Washington schools next weekend.
“As a team we are hitting our peak, we are playing lock down defense and playing great offense,” Smith said. “We are not thinking about the NIT, we are thinking about the NCAA tournament.”
First up for the Trojans will be Thursday night’s 7 p.m. tilt against Washington State (17-10, 7-8) at the Wallis Beasley Coliseum in Pullman, Wash.
The Cougars are led by senior guard and Pac-10 Player of the Year candidate, Klay Thompson (21.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and four assists per game).
USC won the teams’ first contest this season back on Dec. 31, narrowly defeating the Cougars 60-56.
“Those are two must wins for us,” Stepheson said. “It won’t be an easy trip, but we can get it done.”
The Trojans, who currently find themselves alone in fourth place in the conference standings, will then return to Los Angeles March 9 to take part in the Pac-10 Tournament at the Staples Center.