Red-hot Trojans travel to Bay Area
College basketball fans have been trained to remain quiet when a home player steps to the free-throw line, allowing the athlete to completely concentrate on making the shot.
As senior point guard Jio Fontan stepped to the free-throw line to put the finishing touches on USC’s 71-60 victory over Washington on Sunday, however, the Galen Center crowd of 4,214 instead gave the Trojans (11-13, 6-5 Pac-12) a rousing standing ovation. Junior guard J.T. Terrell waved his arms up and down, drew even louder cheers from the crowd.
“It was a great distraction to have,” Fontan said. “It was fun to hear our fans go crazy after we took care of business.”
Fun is a word that is rapidly becoming associated with the USC basketball program under interim head coach Bob Cantu. The win over Washington gave the Trojans their first three-game win streak of the season, and the team has taken a more relaxed approach as a result.
“We are keeping it pretty light and loose,” Cantu said. “The guys are responding and playing well.”
Whereas the Trojans frequently utilized offensive set plays under former head coach Kevin O’Neill, who was relieved of his duties Jan. 14, Cantu has allowed his team to play in a more up-tempo style, which has increased USC’s scoring output. The Trojans have scored 70 points or more in five of their seven games under Cantu, compared to just four times out of 17 games under O’Neill.
Fontan said practices have lasted longer under Cantu than O’Neill, but the players have more time to work on individual offensive skills.
“Once we understand the game plan,” Fontan said, “Coach Cantu pretty much lets us practice some of the things we want to do in the game offensively, like fast breaks and putting up shots.”
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the new style of play has been Terrell. After struggling to find consistent playing time under O’Neill, Terrell has made 2.3 3-pointers per game in conference play, tops in the Pac-12. He has scored in double figures in eight of USC’s last nine games.
“With the freedom we have,” Fontan said, “people are realizing he is one of the best one-one-one scorers in the country.”
USC will begin its weekend series tonight at Stanford. Winners of four of their last five games, the Cardinal (15-9, 6-5) are one of the hottest teams in the conference.
Even more impressive is that Stanford’s average margin of victory in its past four wins is 16.5 points, which includes a 76-52 win over then-No. 10 ranked Oregon.
In its conference opener, USC topped Stanford, 71-69, on Jan. 3 in an extremely close game at the Galen Center. The Trojans took the lead with seven seconds remaining on two clutch free throws from Fontan and were able to survive two missed shot attempts by Stanford in the final seconds to secure the victory.
One area in which Stanford had an advantage over USC was in bench production. The Cardinal bench, led by Andy Brown, who matched his season-high with 17 points off the bench, outscored the Trojans’ subs 43-20. Though disappointed with allowing Stanford’s reserves to score that many points, USC was able to hold guard Chasson Randle, Stanford’s second-leading scorer, scoreless on six field goal attempts.
“We are a very different team,” Cantu said. “They are also different, but we are now more familiar with their personnel.”
The Trojans are 1-9 in their last 10 trips to Maples Pavilion, and Stanford is 10-2 at home this season.
Cal, who USC plays on Sunday, is coming off a 77-69 win over then-No. 7 Arizona. The Golden Bears (14-9, 6-5) are also surging of late, having won three of their last four.
Cal is led by junior guard Allen Crabbe. A product of Price High School in Los Angeles, Crabbe is the reigning Pac-12 player of the week after his 31-point performance in the win over Arizona. In the team’s win over USC on Jan. 5, Crabbe was stellar in scoring a game-high 27 points.
The Trojans will be without redshirt junior forward Ari Stewart, who is expected to miss at least three weeks with a fractured left thumb. Cantu said freshman guard Brendyn Taylor and senior forwards Eric Wise and Renaldo Woolridge could earn more minutes with Stewart sidelined.
Tipoff for Thursday’s game against Stanford is scheduled for 8 p.m. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.