The men’s basketball team hung on for its third consecutive win with a 75-65 victory over Long Beach State at the Galen Center on Wednesday.
Redshirt junior Derryck Thornton made his return after missing the past two games, adding much needed depth to the Trojans’ backcourt while star freshman Kevin Porter Jr. remains sidelined.
Long Beach State did not shoot the ball well, but its shifty guards pressured the USC defense and drew fouls, an issue that has plagued USC early on in the season. Even without senior guard Deishaun Booker, who averages a team-high 16 points, the 49ers’ impressive 12-deep rotation kept them competitive all night long.
Thornton gave USC a spark early on with 7 points and four assists in the opening half, yet the Trojans continued their string of slow starts, trailing 9-6 after several minutes of play.
Freshman point guard Elijah Weaver, who came off the bench after starting last game, continued his confident play, hitting two triples and sparking the team a quick 7-0 run that helped them take a 36-28 lead at the half.
USC used LBSU’s greatest strength — crafty dribble penetration — against them, as Thornton and Weaver got to the lane with ease to create spot up shots for their teammates and allowing six Trojans to hit 3-pointers in the half. Weaver easily slid over to the two with his 6-foot-5 frame as Thornton ran point, something that Thornton hopes they will continue to do moving forward.
“He’s a great player, super good,” Thornton said of Weaver. “He just has a good feel for the game. It definitely makes it easier having two point guards on the floor on the same time.”
USC continued its unselfish play and hot shooting into the second half, pushing the ball down the floor and showcasing its superior athleticism. However, Long Beach State would not go down easily. They slowed the pace of the game down, out-rebounding USC 47-45 and capitalizing on careless turnovers for easy buckets.
Guard Jordan Roberts stepped up in Booker’s absence, outscoring USC’s bench on his own with a career-high 13 points. Head coach Andy Enfield made an aggressive in-game adjustment, switching to a full court press in hopes of rattling the 49ers, but the tactic was easily broken down. The Trojans were forced to switch back to a zone, something they have not done as much this year.
“Our man-to-man defense has been pretty good most of the season,” Enfield said. “We’re holding teams to about 37 percent from the field. We’re getting better defensively. Last year, our zone was terrific. This year, because we’ve had so many injuries, our zone is not as good as it has been.”
Junior forward Nick Rakocevic heated up down the stretch, showing confidence in calling for the ball when he got to his spot on the block. He showed off a smooth hook numerous times. He finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
“Nick’s done a good job of improving every year,” Enfield said. “He knows what it takes to win. He’s got very good touch around the basket. He certainly is our best rebounder and shot blocker and he intends to keep developing on both sides of the ball.”
Rakocevic credited his improved play to the time he put in this past offseason.
“I was working hard all summer,” Rakocevic said. “Stayed here, didn’t go home, [working on] just every aspect of my game. Just being here, working with the coaches.”
The Trojans still shot 50 percent from 3-pointer, despite not getting many open looks.
“We have some very good shooters,” Enfield said. “When their feet are set and they’re open. That’s the big thing for us, we want to take open shots, and tonight we didn’t have a ton of open shots from 3.”
USC closed the game on a 7-0 run to pull away with the 10-point win.
USC was quite fortunate that the 49ers struggled to put the ball in the hoop, as it only shot 36 percent, despite having numerous good looks.
Enfield stressed the importance of increasing the defensive intensity moving forward, especially against No. 5 Nevada on Saturday.
“The biggest thing is rebounding,” Enfield said. “We play small a lot. It’s one of those things where the guards have to come back in and help.”
USC will take on Nevada on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Galen Center.