A sluggish offensive effort in the first half for USC was overcome by a blazing shooting spree in the final period of play, as the Trojans came away with a 77-59 victory against visiting Cal at the Galen Center on Sunday.
USC was led in scoring by senior guard Elijah Stewart and sophomore guard Jonah Mathews, who both chipped in 16 points apiece for the Trojans.
The victory is USC’s sixth-consecutive in conference play. The Trojans (17-6 overall, 8-2 in Pac-12) currently find themselves a half-game behind conference-leading Arizona in the Pac-12 standings.
“It’s always difficult winning in the Pac-12,” said USC senior guard Jordan McLaughlin, who finished with 9 points (3-of-7 FG) and 10 assists against Cal. “The fact that we’ve been able to pull off six straight wins, we just want to keep it going. We’re entering one of the tougher parts of our schedule now, so we’ve just got to keep taking it day-by-day.”
In the closing seconds of the first half, Mathews connected on a 3-point field goal that gave USC a narrow 31-29 lead at the break. The Trojans would not relinquish this lead for the remainder of the contest.
“[Mathews] brings a spark on defense and offense for us,” McLaughlin said. “Coach gives us all a lot of freedom to shoot the ball, but especially to [Mathews]. When he’s in rhythm, he can knock down 8-of-10 shots from anywhere on the floor.”
The first half saw USC shoot 11-for-34 (32.4 percent) from the field. The Trojans shot 2-of-8 (25 percent) from beyond the arc in the opening half.
“We took some really tough, contested shots in the lane (in the first half),” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “[First half struggles] came down to shot selection … We only had four assists in the first half, we had 13 in the second half. That’s why we were able to score more points later.”
USC came out firing offensively to open up the second half. Over the first seven minutes of the second period, USC went on a 15-5 run to open their lead on Cal to 46-34. The run was powered by three 3-point field goals from Stewart to open the half.
“[Stewart’s] been doing that for us for four years now,” Enfield said, regarding Stewart’s hot-shooting. “He’s a great shooter when his feet are set, and we need him to do that for our team. He’s a big part of our team … When he’s knocking down shots, it probably means our team is about to go on a run.”
Stewart, who was held scoreless in the first half (0-for-3 FG), was a major catalyst for USC offensively when it widened the gap on Cal (7-15, 1-8) in the second half. Stewart hit 4-of-5 3-point field goal attempts in the second half, enroute to a 16-point performance.
For the second consecutive game, the Trojans were without junior forward Bennie Boatwright (averaging 15.2 PPG this season), who is dealing with a foot injury.
In a second half, which saw USC outscore Cal 46-30, the Trojans shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range. Overall, USC was 17-for-29 (58.6 percent) from the field in the second half.
Cal senior forward Marcus Lee finished with the game-high in both points scored, 23, and rebounds, 12. Golden Bears freshman guard Darius McNeill contributed 13 points in a losing-effort for Cal.
USC’s largest lead of the night came on a dunk from freshman forward Victor Uyaelunmo with just over two minutes remaining in regulation. The dunk gave the Trojans a 75-53 lead on Cal.
“Despite the score, that was probably the hardest 20-point game I’ve played in a long time,” Stewart said. “[Cal] just kept coming back and staying in it. So it was a good win.”
USC held the Golden Bears to 11-of-34 (32.4 percent) shooting from the field in the second half. Overall, Cal finished Sunday shooting 22-for-57 (38.6 percent) from the field. USC improved to 8-0 this season, when holding opponents to under 40 percent shooting.
The Golden Bears have now lost eight-consecutive games, the longest losing streak for Cal since the 1992 season.
USC will next take the floor on Feb. 3, when it hits the road to face crosstown rival UCLA (15-7, 6-4) at Pauley Pavilion in Westwood.