USC falls behind in first half and doesn’t recover

A barrage of three-pointers by senior guard Donte Smith was not enough for USC as they fell to California Saturday night, 68-66.

Smith made 8-of-12 three-pointers for a career-high 24 points in 29 minutes off the bench. His eight three-point baskets were the second-most by a Trojan in a game, and only one less than Anthony Pendleton made on Dec. 9, 1987.

En fuego · Senior guard Donte Smith hit eight three-pointers and registered a new career-high with 24 points off the bench against Cal. - Robin Laird | Daily Trojan

“I do not care if I have a career-best game,” Smith said. “If we lose, I am always going to be down.”

For as well as Smith played, junior forward Nikola Vucevic struggled. Vucevic was hit in the jaw early in the game, causing him to bleed from his nose and mouth. Vucevic fouled out of the game with only six points on two-of-eight shooting, and 10 rebounds.

“Nikola let an injury take him out of the game completely,” said USC coach Kevin O’Neill. “He needs to be able to deal with adversity during the course of games. Hopefully that will be something he can learn going forward.”

With Vucevic on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls, freshman forward Garrett Jackson saw increased playing time. Jackson had eight points and six rebounds off the bench, as USC’s reserves outscored California’s 32-9.

Freshman guard Maurice Jones added 10 points for the Trojans (11-9, 3-4). Junior guard Jio Fontan had eight points and a game-high seven assists.

Forward Harper Kamp led California (10-9, 3-4) with 19 points and seven rebounds. Center Mark Sanders-Frison contributed 12 points and eight rebounds for the Golden Bears.

It was a streaky game for USC.

The Trojans started the game cold, only making one of their first 11 shots, and the team took 4:43 seconds to score their first points, on a dunk by senior forward Alex Stepheson.

Smith came off the bench and hit two quick three pointers, sparking a 14-0 run that gave the Trojans a 16-8 lead.

After that point, however, the Golden Bears went on a 22-6 run of their own, and went into halftime with a 30-22 lead. The Trojans only shot .286 from the field in the opening half.

Smith continued his hot shooting in the second half. He scored 12 consecutive points for the Trojans, helping USC regain the lead at 52-50 on a three-point basket by Jackson.

The teams then traded leads. California gained momentum when Fontan was charged with an intentional foul against Kamp. The Golden Bears were awarded two free throws and the ball, allowing them to score four points on the possession and extend their lead to 62-57.

“I was not trying to hurt him,” Fontan said. “I was trying to go for the ball, and if I could not get the ball, I was not going to let him get an easy shot.”

The Trojans battled back and cut California’s lead to one point on a lay-up by Fontan. On the next possession, the Golden Bears made the second of two free throws.

USC had six seconds to take the ball the length of the court with no timeouts remaining, forcing Fontan to rush and take an off-balance three-pointer that bounced off the rim.

After allowing Stanford to only make .222 of their shots on Thursday, California shot .542 in the second half.

“We preach all the time if you do not play defense, you do not win,” O’Neill said. “We could not get stops in crucial situations.”

The Trojans travel to Tempe, Arizona to play at Arizona State Thursday.

USC does not return to the Galen Center until Feb. 10, when they host Oregon State.