In their first game since publicly announcing that De’Anthony Melton will be unavailable for the rest of the season, the Trojans played with fire and fury on Sunday. Although they quickly trailed 6-0 to the Utah Utes (10-7, 2-4), the Trojans responded with a 10-0 run. After allowing a 3-point shot, which put the score at 10-9, USC then went on a 22-6 run and never relinquished its double-digit lead. The Trojans defeated the Utes, 84-67, but the game was effectively over at halftime with the Trojans up 46- 22.
Sophomore guard Jonah Mathews called this a “statement” game both about Melton and Utah. Prior to tonight, Utah had defeated USC in eight consecutive matchups dating back to 2012 when Kevin O’Neill was still USC’s head coach.
“They were talking trash throughout the game about how we couldn’t beat them,” Mathews said, “… even when they were down 20.”
Head coach Andy Enfield joked that USC’s losing streak came to an end because Utah’s best players are now in the NBA. The Utes wore “Kuzmania” warm-up shirts before tip-off, as if to send a message to the Trojans that alumnus Kyle Kuzma, now a Lakers rookie, runs Los Angeles. USC did not buy that message.
“We tried to keep our composure and let the scoreboard talk for us,” Mathews said.
In the midst of an up-and-down year, USC earned a decisive Pac-12 victory.
“It was one of our best games so far,” redshirt junior Shaqquan Aaron added. USC channeled the emotion into a phenomenal defensive effort, forcing 17 turnovers.
“Our defense helped us get out to a lead and gave us confidence,” Enfield said.
The Trojans committed only seven turnovers. The plus-10 turnover margin gave them 10 extra possessions throughout the game, effectively the cause for a double-digit scoring margin. USC also started red hot from beyond the arc, converting eight of its first 12 3-point attempts and finishing with a season-high 14 3-point shots made. Eight different players made 3-point shots.
Another consequence of USC’s announcement that Melton is out for the year is that USC finally has its full roster available. Aside from Melton’s absence, earlier this season, USC missed sophomore guard Derryck Thornton for six weeks due to a shoulder injury and junior forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu with a suspension and ejection. Now, Enfield can be certain that the rotations he uses each night will be ones that should be available in March. He also has a lot of depth to draw upon. The Trojans scored 46 first-half points without having a single double-digit scorer. Mathews, who had 8 in the half, would end up leading the team with 17. Boatwright, who had only 2 points in the first half, finished with 13, and five other Trojans scored 9 or more points.
After sweeping the Rocky Mountain schools, the Trojans are a 50-foot buzzer beater (at Stanford) away from being first place in the Pac-12.
“It’s better to have your losses at the beginning,” Aaron said. He said he believes USC is still a national championship contender.
While USC has its full lineup, Boatwright and, especially, Metu appear at risk of garnering more suspensions. They each picked up a technical foul late in Wednesday’s game.
“We hope Chimezie can control his emotions and not hurt the team,” Enfield said. The star center’s energy is two-fold. While it gets him in trouble, it also motivates his teammates.
“When he is screaming, he gets us all fired up,” Aaron said. For USC and Metu, a high-intensity, smack-talking reputation could precede the team to their upcoming Pac-12 games. This, after Metu’s suspension at Washington State, his boisterous comments and Enfield’s late timeout at the end of the Colorado game, and a chippy technical for words directed at Utah’s Jayce Johnson.
When asked if USC is developing a “bad boy mentality,” Enfield laughed and said, “I don’t see Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn in the locker room. We’re just trying to be USC basketball players.”
If the smack-talk and chippy play continues, though, USC’s opponents might start to target the Trojans. In other words, they will circle USC games on their calendars and bring extra energy to those matchups. After all, Colorado coach Tad Boyle has already said that a victory against USC would be extra sweet given the FBI investigation into the program.
That is not necessarily bad for USC, a team which tends to play toward its opponent’s energy. After all, less than one month ago, the Trojans lost at home to Princeton and Washington.
Ferocity and smack-talking could be the mentality the Trojans require to finish off the season strong.