Trojans beat conference leading Bears

The fans at the Galen Center had never seen anything like it.

Finisher · Senior forward Alex Stepheson finished with 10 points and eight rebounds in the Trojans’ 66-63 victory Thursday night. The Trojans closed out the Bears in the final minutes by hitting free throws and containing the California offense. - Mike Lee | Daily Trojan

After falling behind by 13 points in the first half against California, the USC men’s basketball team responded with an unthinkable, crowd-dazzling 25-0 run to wrestle the lead away from the Golden Bears. The visitors fought back late in the game, but in the end the Trojans (13-9, 5-5) fended off Cal to clinch a 66-63 victory Thursday night.

“It was a heck of a win for us, coming off a couple disappointing losses on the road and some ups and downs,” USC coach Kevin O’Neill said.

With 1:55 left to play and USC trailing 57-56, redshirt senior guard Mike Gerrity drained a 3-pointer to retake the lead. One minute later, Gerrity hit another three, giving USC a 62-57 lead. California forward Theo Robertson responded on the other end with a three-pointer of his own to cut the deficit to two, but the Trojans held on from there.

“We needed some shots,” Gerrity said of his two late 3-pointers. “The coaches and my team had confidence in me. I just stepped in and shot them like I shot any other shot.”

Playing in his 125th career game — a new USC all-time record — senior guard Dwight Lewis led the Trojans with 13 points. Gerrity had three 3-pointers in all and finished with 12 points. Five other USC players added at least six points.

For California (14-8, 6-4), guard Jerome Randle scored 29 points, including 6 of 12 from behind the 3-point line, and guard Patrick Christopher added 11 points.

No other Bear had more than eight points as the Trojans defense did just enough to make Randle’s offensive explosion manageable. Randle entered the game as the fourth-leading scorer in the conference, averaging 18.9 points per game for the Bears.

The Trojans trailed by three to begin the second half, but that would change in a hurry. Lewis got things going with a 3-pointer that tied the score. Junior guard Marcus Simmons helped USC take its first lead of the game with a layup shortly thereafter, and the Trojans, who had already scored 10 unanswered points before the half, went on to score the next 10.

O’Neill credited the run in large part to Simmons, who played most of the second half in an effort to help USC in transition on both offense and defense.

“We were down 30-17,” O’Neill said. “We had to do something, so we went small. That small lineup toward the end of the first half and going into the second kept us going.”

The Golden Bears didn’t go down without a fight. After redshirt senior forward Marcus Johnson’s layup gave USC a 42-30 lead early in the second half, Cal answered with a 22-10 run, ensuring that the game would stay close down the stretch.

But the Trojans’ trademark defense proved to be a problem for Cal. Despite a hot start, the Golden Bears finished the game shooting just 39 percent from the field.

“We really dug in on the defensive end,” Gerrity said. “That’s been our thing all year. Good defense led to good offense.”

USC stumbled out of the gates in the first half, starting the game just 1 of 7 from the field. Cal, meanwhile, just couldn’t seem to miss and took a 30-17 lead a Randle 3-pointer with a little less than seven minutes left in the half.

But while their offense was sputtering, the Trojans began to lock down on defense, holding the Golden Bears scoreless for the next 6:48. With just 12 seconds left in the half, Lewis blocked guard Patrick Christopher’s shot and took the ball all the way down the court for an easy layup, capping a 10-0 USC run and cutting the Bears’ lead to 30-27 going into the break.

The Trojans had an abysmal 13 turnovers in the first half while shooting 10-of-26 from the field.

But when the game was over, all that mattered was that USC had rallied back after it looked like Cal was well on its way to a blowout.

“It was huge for us, the fact that we could overcome a large deficit,” Gerrity said. “It showed that the team came together. We never quit.”

The Trojans next tip-off is against Stanford on Saturday at the Galen Center at 4:30 p.m.