In the words of USC coach Bob Cantu, the Trojans “stayed the course.”
After an offensive vacuum sucked up both teams’ productivity midway through the second half, the Trojans (10-13, 5-5 in Pac-12 play) capitalized on their opportunities down the stretch and hit a wave of late free throws to pull away for a 72-68 home win over the Washington State Cougars (11-12, 2-8).
USC trailed by seven early in the second half, but the Trojans managed to square the game at 53 with 5:37 to go, and then went on a decisive 9-1 run to pull out to a 62-54 lead with under three minutes to go. The frenetic Cougars hit a whirlwind of 3-pointers to cut the deficit to two with six seconds left but were unable to claw all the way back.
The Trojans improve to 3-3 under Cantu, and are now in a five-way tie for fifth place in the Pac-12 conference standings with a conference record of 5-5.
A week after scoring four clutch overtime points in USC’s 75-71 over UCLA, sophomore guard Byron Wesley led the Trojans with a season-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, including eight of USC’s first 10 points.
“Byron is a slasher; he’s a scorer and he can get to the basket,” Cantu said. “He’s almost like a running back in there, you get him the ball and he can find holes in the zone and make plays.”
Senior point guard Jio Fontan tied a career high with 11 assists to go along with 10 points, despite not practicing all week while dealing with the flu. Junior guard J.T. Terrell pitched in 12 points, all in the second half, while junior forward Ari Stewart contributed a season-high 11 off the bench in a balanced Trojan scoring effort. Redshirt junior forward Dewayne Dedmon led the Trojans with 11 rebounds, as USC outrebounded the Cougars 38-28.
USC had an eight-day layoff following the UCLA game and broke out with a burst of energy as the sides traded baskets early. After Washington State tied the game at 14 with 12:53 left in the first half, the Trojans reeled off seven straight points, including five from bench sub Stewart, to go ahead at 21-14.
“We gave them (the team) a couple of days off over the weekend, and then we said ‘Hey guys, you got to take care of business this next game or else that game (UCLA) is not going to mean anything,’” Cantu said.
The Cougars found their shooting touch soon after, though. After not scoring for the first 13 minutes, forward Brock Motum had a scoring burst of six points in two minutes, as the Cougars went on an 11-3 run to take a 25-24 lead with 5:05 left in the opening half. The Trojans clawed back to take the lead again, but consecutive 3-pointers by guard DaVonte Lacy put USC in a 33-30 hole at halftime.
The Trojans quickly erased their deficit to begin the second half to make it 34-33, but the Trojan defense could not muster enough pressure, as the Cougars followed with an 8-0 run to take a 41-34 lead, their largest of the game.
A slew of offensive fouls and turnovers hurt the Trojans, but the Cougars topped them in sloppy play by going over six minutes without even making a field goal. With the Cougars throwing up bricks, back-to-back 3-pointers from Terrell gave USC its first lead of the second half at 49-47 with 7:51 to go. Still in the game by this point, USC managed to score efficiently down the stretch, going 17-for-18 on free throws in the second half to hold off the Cougars.
The Trojans host the Washington Huskies on Sunday at 7 p.m.