After a comeback attempt against No. 21 Oregon that fell just short on Thursday night, USC men’s basketball was still looking for their first win under interim head coach Bob Cantu.
The Trojans finally got that win by clinging to a one-point lead as time expired in a 69-68 victory over Oregon State at the Galen Center Saturday night.
Though Oregon State (10-8, 0-5) had lost all four of its Pac-12 conference games heading into the matchup, a tough Beaver defense put pressure on USC (8-11, 3-3) and enabled them to overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half.
“At the end there we gave up a 15-point lead, which I was disappointed with, but the guys didn’t give up,” Cantu said. “To come out here tonight and to be able to get this win is a great thing for us moving forward.”
The Trojans and Beavers played a tight game for most of the first half but a late 8-0 run allowed USC to pull ahead by as many as nine points. Senior center James Blasczyk helped solidify a 39-31 lead going into halftime with a buzzer-beating dunk off a missed jumper by sophomore guard Byron Wesley, who would end the game with a season-high 19 points.
USC emerged from the locker room after halftime with renewed energy, putting up seven unanswered points and forcing Oregon State to take an early timeout within the first two minutes. After those first quick-paced minutes, however, the team struggled to penetrate the Beaver 1-3-1 zone defense.
“They just did a great job defensively,” said senior guard Jio Fontan. “That zone is really different from anything we’ve seen so far, so when you throw something so sporadically at us it’s kind of hard to make adjustments.”
The team also struggled with turnovers, coughing up 20 total, which is more than their average of 13.6 per game and double what they committed against Oregon in Cantu’s first game as interim head coach.
And like the outcome against Oregon on Thursday night, the game came down to the last second, with the lead changing eight times in the final minutes. Trailing by one with less than a minute to play, USC turned the ball over and seemingly squandered its chances at victory. But a steal by senior forward Eric Wise on the ensuing inbounds pass was converted into a layup, and the Trojans led once again.
The Beavers were able to answer on their next possession when Joe Burton scored with less than 12 seconds remaining to give Oregon State the lead once again. Again in need of a late score, junior guard J.T. Terrell raced up the court and dropped a pass off to senior forward Aaron Fuller, whose only basket of the night turned out to be the game-winner.
With 4.8 seconds left on the clock, Oregon State had one last chance to take the lead. But Wise, who finished the night with 18 points, blocked Oregon State’s final shot to secure the team’s first win under Cantu.
“It’s extremely exciting,” said Wesley. “Cantu’s been here for 12 years now and to be a part of his first win, I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Cantu also expressed his excitement, but noted that the win was especially important for the players, who he credited for making adjustments during a tough week. The team found out last Sunday that coach Kevin O’Neill had been fired and that Cantu, then assistant coach, would be filling in.
“They’re a great bunch of guys and they work hard and this has obviously been a difficult week for them,” Cantu said. “But I’m just happy we got the win.”
During the post-game press conference, he spoke briefly about what the win meant to him personally, but more about stepping into his new role.
“[Getting this first win] feels great,” Cantu said. “When a 15-point lead starts evaporating, your blood pressure definitely goes up a little bit, but I’m excited and feeling more comfortable every day.”
Several players referred to the week as long and hectic, but are focused on moving forward and playing competitive ball against two more Pac-12 conference teams next week.
“This week has dragged out but we made the best of it,” Fontan said. “We came up short Thursday in a game that we probably should have won and got the job today in a game that should’ve been a little bit easier but the week’s over and we’re glad we got the split.”
USC hits the road next week for more Pac-12 play against Arizona State (Jan. 24) and Arizona (Jan. 26).