USC closes turbulent regular season against UCLA

The 2017-2018 season for USC basketball has been nothing but noise.

Junior forward Chimezie Metu goes up for a dunk against Oregon State. Austin Paik | Daily Trojan

Whether it was the initial scandal involving former assistant coach Tony Bland, sophomore guard De’Anthony Melton’s suspension or even recent reports claiming that junior forwards Chimezie Metu and Bennie Boatwright also took illegal benefits, everything surrounding the program has painted this year as a season of chaos.

This Saturday, however, USC has the chance to do what they have done for a majority of this season: silence the noise.

“It’s been a challenging season for all of us,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “It wears on all of us because you feel for people. We’re a big family here and when someone from your family has something going on, you care for each other.”

Despite the off-the-court negativity, USC sits in second place in the Pac-12 and its 12-5 start to conference play is its best since 1997.

Along with winning 10 of its last 13 games, USC has won 20 or more games for the third consecutive season, just the second time in school history (2007-09).

And although UCLA leads the all-time series 141-108, USC is 4-3 in its last seven games against UCLA, including the last two wins at the Galen Center.

But the last time the Bruins and Trojans faced off, the story did not end happily for USC.

Just one month ago at Pauley Pavilion, and despite holding a 69-60 lead with 8:08 left in the second half, USC fell to UCLA 82-79  after a combination of clutch second-half plays from junior point guard Aaron Holiday as well as the Bruin bigs.

Along with 10 points from Holiday, UCLA tallied 22 points in the final eight minutes thanks to 3-point buckets and free-throws from seniors center Thomas Welsh and forward G.G. Goloman.

Holiday, who hit two 3-pointers late, led all scorers with 23 points and added nine assists, a steal, a block and six rebounds.

The rest of the Bruins combined for 12-for-26 shooting from deep downtown (46.2 percent) and drained 29 of their 57 shots from the field (50.9 percent).

And while Metu (11 points, 12 rebounds) and sophomore forward Nick Rakocevic (14 points, 10 rebounds) both achieved double-doubles, the Trojans scoring attack featured streaky shooting.

Usually reliable, Boatwright and freshman guard Jordan Usher went for a combined 0-for-9 from the field in 20 minutes of play.

Since USC and UCLA’s road trips to Arizona, the Trojans have excelled while the Bruins have faltered.

Despite losing Boatwright to a season-ending knee injury, USC has won four-straight over Oregon, Oregon State, Colorado and Utah.

“We’re definitely a different team, because we’ve gotten better every game,” Metu said. “One thing we’ve learned is that we’ve got to play better defense. Guys went away from it for a while and now we’ve locked back in.”

Just like USC, UCLA also swept the Oregon schools with a 75-68 win over Oregon State and an 86-78 overtime win over Oregon.

While their success was evident against Oregon and Oregon State, the Bruins dropped two-straight to the Utah Utes (84-78) and Colorado Buffaloes (80-76).

For a USC squad that completed its first Mountain road trip sweep since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011, Saturday night’s matchup could add momentum to this streaking Trojan team.

After a three-game losing stretch of 80 points or more allowed on defense, USC in its four-game winning streak has allowed just 62.75 points per game.

The defense for the Trojans has been a key to their recent success.

“Our focus is on the defensive end,” Enfield said. “We’ve played excellent defense the past few games, it has to continue because UCLA is extremely explosive on offense and can put points on the board in a hurry. They have five guys on the court that can score at any time, so we’re going to have our hands full.”

But Saturday’s game means more for USC than just a rivalry game and a chance to cement itself as the second-best team in the Pac-12.

For senior guards Jordan McLaughlin and Elijah Stewart, it could mean a chance to cement themselves in USC history.

Along with ranking third in the nation in assists (228), McLaughlin ranks second on USC’s all-time list in minutes played, only nine minutes behind the all-time leader Dwight Lewis.

If McLaughlin plays for 10 minutes against UCLA — which he certainly should, considering he has averaged 34.5 minutes per game this season — he will have played in over 4,070 minutes in the Trojan uniform.

“We’ve built a culture here that’s a winning program,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been a great experience here at USC, I’ve built a lot of relationships on and off the court. It’s bittersweet, but coming up against UCLA, I’ve got to go out with a bang.”

Meanwhile, Stewart has played 132 career games as a Trojan, second on USC’s all-time list behind Dwight Lewis who leads with 133.

Having already achieved USC’s three-point record last game with his 234th three ball, Stewart could share the title for most games played with Lewis at 133 on Saturday night.

Even with these records being broken, the Trojans first have to take down a hungry UCLA squad that hasn’t won at the Galen Center in over three years.