March Madness puts the college basketball stars under the brightest lights, but, oftentimes, role players are the defining characters of the drama driving game results with their timely play.
Enter redshirt senior guard Isaiah White. White earned his starting lineup spot with his tough defense and rebounding capabilities. But on Sunday night, he stepped up in a new way torching the Oregon Ducks with 22 points and providing the intensity needed to lead USC to an 82-66 win over Oregon in the Sweet 16 matchup.
“I feel like the team feeds off my energy,” White said in the virtual press conference Sunday night. “I make sure out the gate that I come with that energy and come with that heart, and hopefully it makes everyone else comfortable, and then we just get to playing our game.”
In the battle of the first- and second-placed teams in the Pac-12 regular season, it was the conference runner ups that came out on top. This is the first time USC has reached the Elite Eight since 2001.
The Ducks went on a 11-0 run to mount a late comeback, holding USC scoreless for upwards of five minutes late in the second half. They got their momentum from second chance looks on the offensive glass, cutting their deficit to just nine points with four minutes left. With some timely buckets, the Trojans pulled away in the last few minutes to seal the win.
“It was a great win for us,” Head Coach Andy Enfield said. “Oregon is just an outstanding team, and they were playing so well … We thought they were a top 10 team in the country … I thought our team played exceptionally well tonight against a very good basketball team.”
USC has yet to lose a game this season when they’ve had three or more players score in double digits. It was four players Sunday night: White, redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy with 20, sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley with 13 and freshman forward Evan Mobley with 10. The team continued to light it up from beyond the arc, hitting 10 three pointers which doubled Oregon’s total on the night.
“We’re a whole different team when we can make threes,” Enfield said. “Some of our losses this year we’ve been very inconsistent from the perimeter, and we’re shooting the ball well as a team right now.”
Defensively, USC turned to the 2-3 zone used against Kansas in the Round of 32. It was equally effective in the first half against the Ducks, forcing bad passes and contested shots late on the shot clock.
“They have five forwards and guards that can all shoot the three,” Enfield said. “They made some shots early, and we had to switch to zone … When [they were] small, I didn’t think we [could] guard them man-to-man and win the game.”
Oregon’s offense had been a force to be reckoned with in the tournament, but their production came from just two main sources on the night. Senior guard Chris Duarte was the Ducks’ front man, posting 21 points and six assists. However, redshirt senior forward Eugene Omoruyi ultimately led in scoring, putting up 28 points and causing problems for the Trojan defense all night. The two combined for 49 of Oregon’s 66 total points, with other teammates shut down.
The Trojans now look towards their biggest tournament challenge yet: No. 1 seed undefeated Gonzaga. The Elite Eight game is set to tip off Tuesday at 4:15 p.m.
“I don’t know about what everyone else is saying, all I know is that this team is special and we believe we can beat anybody,” White said. “We’re gonna play our game, we’re gonna listen to what the game plan is and we’re gonna execute.”