Like it was four weeks ago, the Trojans held a double-digit lead in the second half over Washington. And again, the Huskies made a push to trim the Trojans’ advantage.
But unlike January 3rd in Seattle, the Men of Troy were able to weather the Huskies’ push and come away with a 98-88 victory at Galen Center Saturday afternoon.
Junior forward Nikola Jovanovic led the way with 28 points on 10-of-13 shooting while sophomore guard Jordan McLaughlin chipped in 21 points, making 5-of-10 shots.
The Huskies made a run to cut into the Trojans’ lead to start the second half, cutting the 11-point lead down to three after a couple of transition baskets.
But USC answered with a run of its own, scoring on eight of its next nine possessions. Jovanovic continued to score inside and a 3-pointer by McLaughlin helped regain a double-digit advantage for the Trojans at 72-61 midway through the second half.
“We just remained poised,” McLaughlin said. “We understood what we went through when we were up there [at Washington]. Yesterday in practice we worked on our press break, coming back to the ball and helping out whoever was getting pressed. We really emphasized all the mistakes we had up there.”
After Washington trimmed the lead down to two possessions with under four minutes to play, USC clamped down on defense, holding the Huskies to just two field goals the rest of the way. Jovanovic’s putback layup gave USC a 93-82 lead with just over a minute to play.
The junior’s 28 points was a season-high and he did most of his damage in the paint against a Washington team that struggles with defensive rebounds. The Trojans had 18 offensive rebounds to the Huskies’ 12.
“We knew we could attack the defensive glass and hurt them over there, and that’s what we did,” Jovanovic said.
Head coach Andy Enfield noted that he did not do anything special to call attention to Jovanovic.
“Nikola is extremely talented and skilled,” Enfield said. “He played within himself tonight. Made some moves, and was able to get to the rim and finish. There’s nothing we did to say, ‘Go out and score 28 points.’ We just said, ‘Go play your game and have some fun.’”
The Trojans used a 17-5 run to pull ahead late in the first half, as they were prolific from 3-point range. It took USC nearly 12 minutes to knock down its first triple when sophomore guard Elijah Stewart put the Trojans up 23-20. But the Men of Troy made three of their next four shots from distance, and freshman forward Bennie Boatwright’s connection at the 4:39 mark of the first half gave USC its first double-digit lead of the afternoon at 36-24.
Jovanovic finished off the half with two pretty layups – one in traffic after a series of pump fakes and the second on a controlled take to the rim with the shot clock winding down.
The Huskies, meanwhile, were held to just three field goals in the final eight minutes of the first half as the Trojans took a 44-33 lead into halftime.
Washington’s star senior guard Andrew Andrews, who leads the Pac-12 in scoring at 21.3 points per game, had a subpar afternoon with just 15 points on 3-of-14 shooting as the Trojans were able to limit his driving ability.
“It helped a lot,” McLaughlin said on the strategy against Andrews. “Without him being as effective and getting to the rack, it helped us in a major way.”
Boatwright scored five quick points early on for USC, which jumped out to a 9-6 four minutes into the game. Boatwright, who finished with 15 points, was one of five Trojans who scored in double figures along with Katin Reinhardt, Jovanovic, McLaughlin, Reinhardt and Stewart.
“We’ve been able to pick each other up,” Enfield said on the scoring balance. “If [certain] players have off nights, their teammates have been able to carry the scoring load and make plays. We don’t have anyone [like Andrew Andrews] who’s going to score 20 or 25 points a night. We have extremely talented offensive players. They share the ball. They bought in to making the extra pass. We lead the [Pac-12] in assists because we’re sharing the basketball.”
The Men of Troy surely entered the game with the Jan. 3 loss at Washington on their minds. USC fell 87-85 to the Huskies on the road after blowing a 22-point second half lead.
“It was a big learning experience for us,” Jovanovic said. “We were excited for this matchup. We prepared really well.”
The Trojans improve to 17-5 and 6-3 in conference play, and are now just a half game out of first in the Pac-12. They also remain undefeated at home with a 13-0 record at Galen Center.
Both teams entered Saturday on hot streaks; USC had won four of its last six games while Washington had won three of four, including a comeback win at UCLA Thursday.
The Trojans were coming off a comfortable 81-71 win over Washington State Thursday night following a pair of losses in Oregon last weekend.
They have four days off before taking on UCLA at Galen Center in a crosstown showdown next Thursday.