By Rich Ruben
In 1985, the Trojans were led by Pac-10 Player of the Year Wayne Carlander. They swept the Arizona road trip that season and shared the conference title with Washington. USC had an opportunity to win the title outright but lost the season’s last game. That was the last time USC won the regular season title. Could history be repeated? The Trojans are now 8-2 and 3-1 in conference play and should be in the thick of the Pac-12 race all season. The 73-64 win over ASU was far from a thing of beauty, but ugly wins count the same.
After the win over Arizona, I wondered how much the Trojans missed Ethan Anderson; Peterson and Eaddy played very well directing the offense in Tucson. If that was ever a legitimate question, this game made it clear how much Ethan is missed. Ethan would have been guarding ASU’s point guard Holland Woods when Woods brought the Devils back from an 18 point deficit by himself and cut the margin to 4 at the break. Woods made 6 of his 10 first half shots including 3-5 from three and he had half of the Devils’ first half points. Fortunately Woods couldn’t duplicate his first half; he scored only 2 points after the break.
The announcers repeatedly talked about ASU’s four missing players and the Devils were undoubtedly short handed. Their point guard and best player Remy Martin didn’t play, but the other three missing players are role players at most. The Sun Devils rely on Martin and three other players who did play against USC for their offense. The Trojan defense limited all three. Senior guard Alonzo Verge scored 17 points on 4-13 from the field including 2 from downtown and 7-8 from the line. Freshman sensation guard Josh Christopher had 11 points, making 3 of his 11 shots including 2 threes. Freshman forward Marcus Bagley finished with 11 points, making 3-11 shots including two threes. If anyone watching the game thought that ASU played a bunch of scrubs it wasn’t that dramatic.
Martin’s absence was definitely a factor, but the Trojans have nothing to apologize about. This same short handed group took UCLA to overtime on Thursday. Coach Enfield said that this was “a big road sweep…. and (I’m) very, very proud of our players.” He added that “Our guys showed great composure and ground out a win defensively, and by making some key shots and from the foul line.” That wasn’t a misstatement; the Trojans made 26-32 from the line (81.3%). It isn’t often over the last few years that the Trojans win games from the line, but they shot a very high percentage in both games this week.
The Trojans Gave Up The Big Lead, Fell Behind And Finally Closed The Game
The Trojans size and defense overwhelmed ASU for the first 15 minutes and then things changed dramatically. The Devils scored the last 14 points in the first half and trailed by only 4. ASU made a quick three to start the second half and it was game on. The Trojans fell behind 53-51 with just under 9 minutes left. Enfield stayed with his starters thru almost all of the second half and USC changed to a zone at the six and a half minute mark. The zone bothered the quicker Devils.
The Trojan Defense Was Very Good Most Of The Game
Although at times it seemed ASU was making every shot they finished 20-69 (33.9%). This was not a bad defensive performance. The Trojans came into the game as one of the nation’s leaders limiting opponents to 35.9%. The Sun Devils were more effective from three than most opponents, making 9-24 (37.5%). USC limited the smaller Devils to only 16 points in the paint.
Trojan turnovers helped keep the game close. The Trojans committed 16 turnovers compared to 9 for the Devils. ASU scored 20 points off TO’s to 6 for the Trojans.
The Trojans size on the defensive end was key. They blocked 12 shots; Evan Mobley had 6 blocks and Drew Peterson added 3. Many of the blocks were on shots away from the basket including from beyond the arc. The ASU players appeared surprised that Evan was able to come outside on shooters and block what they thought were open shots. The blocked shots helped offset the Trojan turnovers. USC blocked 4 shots in the latter stages of the game in their zone defense. The 12 blocks are just under USC’s all time record of 14 against Pepperdine in 2017.
The Offense Struggled, Especially From Three
The Trojans made 39.3 % of their shots, far under the 49.2% in the first nine games. The biggest problem was the inability to make threes. The Trojans took 22 threes and only made 3, one by Evan and two by Drew. Drew was 2-3 from outside and he teamed with Evan for one of the biggest plays of the game. Evan was double teamed inside late in the second half and found Drew in the corner for a much needed three. Enfield said he is very happy that Evan is making the right plays and is not forcing shots.
Two of USC’s best three point shooters missed all of their attempts. Tahj Eddy missed 6 and Noah Baumann missed 5 more. Tahj had a good night even though he missed 8 of his 12 shots. He finished with 16 points, making 8-9 from the line, and added 9 rebounds and 4 assists with only one turnover. Isaiah Mobley had 13 points and 10 boards and made 3-4 from the line. Drew also scored in double figures with 11 points on 4-10 from the field along with 4 boards and 4 assists.
Evan dominated play at both ends. He was constantly double teamed and took only 7 shots, making 5 including a three. He made 8-9 free throws and finished with 19 points and 13 boards along with his 6 blocks. In commenting on the high percentage of three point shots by the Trojans Enfield said that they take what the defense gives you. He wants the shooters to take open shots.
Enfield added that Evan has been working on his technique from the line and noted that Isaiah made 3 of 4 free throws and he anticipates Isaiah will continue to improve. Isaiah came into the game making 39% from the line with most of his misses long, off the heel of the rim. He looked much more comfortable in this game.
WeAreSC Player Of The Week
Week 1 Winner – Isaiah Mobley
Weeks 2 and 3 Winner – Evan Mobley
Week 4 Winner – Tahj Eaddy
The winner in week 5 is an easy call. Evan had 19 points against Arizona making over half his shots and 5-6 from the line. He led the Trojans in scoring against ASU, continued his very good free throw shooting, finished with 13 boards and his 6 block is his season high. Evan was all over the court defensively and again showed his ability to defend guards off screens. He is so athletic that he rarely gets beat on drives after a switch
The Trojans played two very different games this week offensively but they defended at a high level in both games. ASU missed Martin but the Trojans have gone to the desert plenty of times when one or both Arizona schools had key injuries and still lost. It is undoubtedly easier to win on the road in an empty arena but Colorado isn’t apologizing for its road win over the Trojans. With a team full of newcomers the staff has done a remarkable job. Ethan played the first two games and was injured in the third. Without him the only returners are Isaiah and Max. Since Ethan’s injury USC has been playing primarily with eight players and they all are contributing at both ends.
The Trojans have added a third game for next week. They will host UC Riverside on Tuesday as a makeup for the second non conference game lost to Covid. Washington comes to Galen on Thursday night and WSU on Saturday night. The Trojans hope to carry the momentum from this trip into next week.
One final thought: is it my imagination or are the PAC 12 referees doing a better job this season? There appear to be far fewer missed or ridiculous calls.