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Seniors lead USC to rivalry win; News and Notes from Pauley

By Rich Ruben

In a noisy and packed Pauley Pavilion, the USC Trojans bounced back from their worst game of the season in their loss to Washington with one of their best games. Ethan Anderson scored 12 of the his 14 points in the first half and the seniors took over from there, as the Trojans outplayed their rival in almost every phase of the game in a 74-63 win.

Anderson He was the best player during the first half and led the Trojans to a 2 point lead at the break. Nick Rakocevic and Daniel Utomi had very strong games and Jonah Mathews hit several key shots in the second half. Freshmen Onyeka Okongwu and Isaiah Mobley both had foul trouble and did not impact the game nearly as much as expected.

USC head coach Andy Enfield shortened his bench against the Bruins; Max Agbonkpolo didn’t play, and Quinton Adlesh played only 2 minutes. Drake London was in sweats, sitting out due to illness.

Ethan hobbled off the court in the second half, but was able to return a few minutes later. He said he stepped on someone’s foot in a scrum near the Bruins’ bench and turned his ankle. He also said he would definitely play in SC’s next game against Cal on Thursday. With about two minutes left, Jonah needed teammates to help him off the court and it looked like he could have a serious injury. Turns out he only had a cramp and said after the game that he is fine.

The Numbers Tell The Story Of The Game

After the game, a Trojan staffer agreed with me that if we knew that Big O would only score 4 points, no one would expect a double digit win at Pauley against what Andy labeled a “very good team” that “played hard”. Without the best half of Ethan’s freshman season, the Trojans would have been in trouble in the early going. Ethan finished 6-9 from the floor including one three pointer and had 14 points, though he had only 3 assists and 5 turnovers. Nick was the best player in the game. He finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds including 4 on the offensive boards. He also had three blocks and dominated the paint in the second half. Jonah scored 16 points, 14 in the second half including 2 made threes. Daniel got the start over Elijah Weaver, and he responded with 13 points including 3 made from behind the line. Elijah had a few key baskets and was very solid on defense.

As a team, the Trojans shot 57% from the field for the game and 69 % in the second half, and made half of their 14 threes. They held the Bruins to 38% from the field and 3-13 from deep. Nick and Big O each had 3 blocks. The Bruins came into the game as one of the top ten rebounding teams in the country, but the Trojans were the first team this season to out-rebound them. The Bruins’ full court press led to at least 4 Trojan TO’s in the first half, but SC handled it much better after the break. The Trojans particularly struggled against the press when Ethan was not in the game. The Trojans also crushed the Bruins in fast break points 12-3.

There were two other problem areas for SC.  UCLA grabbed 12 offensive rebounds, which led to 16 points. SC tightened their rebounding in the second half as part of their best half of the season. Because Big O and Isaiah were in foul trouble, Andy went to a lineup with Nick and four guards for stretches in both halves. This group held their own and extended the lead. The Trojans also struggled from the free throw line, which has been the case most of the season.

News and Notes From Pauley

The Bruins announced the game was a sellout, and it appeared almost every seat was taken. The student section was full well before game time, but the rest of the crowd dribbled in throughout the first half. A couple of fans near me arrived with two minutes left in the half. Most Bruin fans didn’t see the end of the game. With about three minutes left the Bruin faithful began to leave in droves, and in the next couple of minutes the arena had emptied out, including Kareem who left with about 2 minutes left. It reminded me of many road football games in the Carroll era, when the Trojans often emptied the stadium. With under a minute to play, the few hundred SC fans scattered around the arena started a “We Are SC” chant.

UCLA point guard Tyger Campbell looks smaller than his listed 5’11”. Ethan was noticeably taller and much bigger, and completely outplayed Campbell. The only Bruin who caused SC trouble was 6’9” guard Chris Smith. He carried the Bruins in the first half when the game was close. The Trojan guards had trouble with his size, but did a much better job after the break. Whatever speech Andy gave at halftime must have been great and hopefully was recorded for future use.

In the last minute, Andy faced the crowd behind the SC bench with a big smile and both palms turned up and seemed to be saying to the small group of SC fans right behind the bench, or to his wife, or to Mike Bohn, “can you believe this?” After the game there was a lot of happy and loud noise coming from the Trojan locker room. Both Nick and Jonah said this was the first time SC had beaten the Bruins at Pauley in their four years and it was a special feeling. Nick said that coming from Chicago, he didn’t realize how big the rivalry was until he played in his first game against the Bruins.

I have to admit that the fans in Pauley were all very nice. There are stories of taunting, cussing or fighting by Bruin fans when SC visits the Rose Bowl, but there was nothing like that last night.

The UCLA post game radio show was broadcast in the arena. It was fun to hear how critical the broadcast team was of the Bruins, saying they don’t play for 40 minutes and need to find a scorer they can count on. They went on and on with one criticism after another.

The Bruins have a DJ at their games, but the Trojan DJ wins that battle hands down. Interesting to see that the Bruin basketball band was very large, between double or triple the size of the Trojan band. Not too many years ago the road team in this game brought its band and cheer squads, but that tradition has been gone for perhaps a decade, which is too bad. Having both bands added to the atmosphere. 

SC didn’t commit many fouls in the first half, but 4 of the first 5 were by Big O and Isaiah. The Bruins took 9 more shots than SC in the first half as a result of having 4 more offensive boards and several Trojan turnovers, but the Trojans still led at the break.

After the game, I asked Andy why the Trojans couldn’t get the ball inside to Big O. He said that O was out of rhythm, and the Bruins did a good job of denying him post up opportunities with great weak side help. Andy acknowledged that this is the second game in a row that O has struggled to score, but added that he is still averaging 18 points and 9 boards. Andy also repeated one of his favorite sayings: “We win as a team and we lose as a team”, and said that other players were able to pick up the scoring load.

When he was asked if he was surprised about how well Ethan played, he repeated a couple of times that Ethan was the LA City Player of the Year, and this is the type of performance you expect from the LA POY. Andy also talked about how the team is looking forward to returning to Galen for games this week against Cal and Stanford, after playing 8 of the last 10 away from home. He said that they must protect their home court.

Nick talked about how he bounced back from one of the worst games of his career at Washington with one of his best games. He wanted this game bad. He thought O’s early foul trouble may have had a part in O’s not playing his usual game, saying sometimes that “messes with you”. Jonah added that he likes playing before loud and rowdy crowds, and said “the more rowdy, the more fun”.

The coaches have been telling Ethan to be more aggressive and to take shots when opportunities are there. He only took 1 shot total in the two games against the Washingtons. He said he knew that others would step up if O was shut down.

Final Thoughts

The Bruins had a number of former greats at the game. For SC, Evan Mobley, a future great was at the game, and so was Chimezie Metu (don’t know why he was in LA).

The Trojans are now 13-3, and have won two of the first three conference games, all on the road. Conference road games are hard to win, no matter who is the opponent. SC’s NET rating this morning is up a few spots to 67. The game against Stanford will present an opportunity to move that number. Stanford is the surprise team in the PAC 12 so far this season. UW is now 1-3 in conference play and after seeing the Bruins last night, it is hard to imagine how the Huskies lost to this Bruin team at home last week. One of the Trojan staffers told me that he thinks the Huskies will struggle now that  point guard Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible earlier this week.

SC’s schedule is very tough over the next several weeks. After Cal, each of the next eight opponents have a better NET ranking that the Trojans, but this schedule presents the Trojans with a lot of opportunities to make a run toward the NCAA tournament.