Coming into the quarterfinals of the Pac-10 tournament against California, the Trojans were desperate to earn a quality win in order to improve their credentials before Selection Sunday in order to be invited to participate in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
When the USC men’s basketball team (19-13) only made 1-11 shots to start the game, and Cal (17-14) jumped out to an early 11-3 lead Thursday afternoon at Staples Center, the Trojans found themselves in even more of a frantic position.
“Our mentality was that we were desperate,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “We needed to do something well.”
After it took USC five minutes and 24 seconds to score its first points, on a three-point basket by junior guard Jio Fontan, the Trojans settled in, playing better defense and overcoming the initial shock that Cal started in a man-to man defense instead of a zone.
USC went on to defeat Cal, 70-56.
Senior guard Marcus Simmons made a three-point basket as time expired in the first half, capping a 26-11 run by the Trojans to end the opening half.
The Trojans went into halftime with a 35-27 lead after making half of their twelve three-point attempts.
USC shot 50 percent in the second half, and extended their lead to as large as 18 points.
USC’s leading scorer, junior forward Nikola Vucevic, did not make a field goal in the first half, and committed three turnovers. He was called for two early fouls, causing him to only play 11 minutes in the opening half, and 27 minutes in the game. He finished the afternoon with seven points and five rebounds.
“Nikola has carried us in a lot of games,” O’Neill said. “It was our turn to carry him tonight.”
Even with Vucevic limited, the Trojans controlled the glass, outrebounding Cal on the offensive end 11-5, and converted 14 second-chance points compared to two for the Golden Bears.
Freshman guard Maurice Jones led the Trojans with 16 points and four assists off the bench. USC is now 6-1 since replacing Jones in the starting lineup with senior guard Donte Smith.
“I come out more aggressive now,” Jones said.
Senior forward Alex Stepheson had 14 points and a game-high 16 rebounds.
“[Stepheson] anchored our whole team tonight both offensively and defensively,” O’Neill said.
Smith had 14 points on 4-6 shooting from beyond the arc, and Fontan had 12 points and four assists.
Cal guard Allen Crabbe, the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year, paced the Golden Bears with a game-high 21 points.
The Trojans held Cal guard Jorge Gutierrez, who was named First-Team All-Pac-10, to four points, his lowest total since playing against USC on January 22.
Depth continues to be an issue for USC. Playing with a seven-man rotation, two Trojans picked up four fouls, and two others were called for three fouls. Six USC players were in the game for 27 or more minutes.
“Our job as players [after the game] is to get off our feet as much as possible, and to get ready to play again,” Simmons said.
USC has a quick turnaround. The Trojans will next play the winner of first-seeded Arizona and ninth-seeded Oregon State in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament on Friday at 6:00 p.m.
“Every game is a must win,” Fontan said. “Our mentality the last six or seven games is that [each game] is the most important game of the season, and then the next game is even more important than the last one.”
The Trojans did not compete in the Pac-10 tournament last season due to NCAA sanctions after winning it in 2009.