Fresh off a thrilling overtime victory over rival UCLA and a week of rest, the USC men’s basketball team will look for a second consecutive conference win against Washington State today at the Galen Center.
Last week, the Trojans (9-13, 4-5) let a 15-point lead over the Bruins dwindle, but held on in overtime with some clutch free throws to notch a 75-71 upset last Wednesday. The Cougars (11-11, 2-7), meanwhile, suffered two losses at home, with the most recent against Arizona ending in a double-digit deficit.
In the win, USC held the third-place Bruins to 38 percent shooting, well below their season average of 46.5 percent. Despite giving up the big second-half lead, interim USC head coach Bob Cantu was optimistic about the team’s performance.
“Our transition defense was really good,” Cantu said. “We got back on defense and didn’t give up easy baskets, so we’ve got to build to do the same thing against Washington State.”
The Trojans also look to build on their strong offensive production in conference play, which ranks fourth in points (averaging 70.2 per game) and third in field goal percentage (44.4 percent) among Pac-12 teams. In the game against UCLA, five players posted double-digit points, with senior guard Jio Fontan and senior forward Aaron Fuller leading the team with 15 each.
“Now we know how we need to play the rest of the season,” Fuller said. “So we need to take how we played [at UCLA] and keep it going.”
USC is now 2-3 under Cantu, with four of those five games decided by five points or fewer (including two games that went into overtime). The team continues to find itself in pressure situations, something Cantu believes will serve his team well heading down the stretch.
“It gives you experience whether you’re home or away, so when it happens again you’re prepared and you know what you’re going into,” Cantu said. “We try to practice these things and provide what I call pressure situations, but that’s the conference. Games are always really close.”
Thursday’s game kicks off the second half of Pac-12 play for the Trojans, who are tied for eighth with Colorado and are separated from three fifth-place teams by a single game.
“We’re just trying to finish strong and win as many games as we can and get the best seed that we can in the conference [tournament] coming up,” said senior forward Eric Wise, who scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds against the Bruins for his third double-double of the season.
With the extra down time following the Trojans’ UCLA victory, Cantu said the team was able to regain its energy and clean up some weaknesses. The Trojans specifically need to stay out of foul trouble heading into the next stretch of games; the team has tallied up 48 more fouls than its opponents in conference play on the season (186-138) and, consequently, have given up 49 more points, which are crucial for a team that has fallen into a habit of taking games down to the wire.
The Trojans will also keep an eye on Fontan, who was absent from practice Tuesday because he was in bed with the flu, according to Cantu.
Though Washington State has lost seven of its nine conference games this season, the Trojans need to focus on their second-half performance and make sure they play consistently down to the final buzzer if they want to secure a fifth conference win.
“We want to take it down to the last four minutes every game and execute and play with poise,” Cantu said. “If we can do that, we’ll have a good chance.”
Tipoff for Thursday’s game at the Galen Center is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.