By Rich Ruben
Many outside the Trojan program didn’t know if this team is as good as they played in the first two games of the Tournament. Sunday night, USC answered that question and played another dominating game, which advanced USC to the Elite 8 and a meeting with top-ranked Gonzaga.
USC beat Oregon 82-68 in a game that was not as close as the final score. Afterward, head coach Andy Enfield appeared stoic and left the impression that his team believes it can continue to win. Isaiah White put the team’s mind set very simply when asked about Gonzaga: “We believe we can beat anybody.”
USC is now 25-7 and within one game of the school record for wins in a season. Enfield noted that this will be USC’s second appearance in the Elite 8 in 60 years and added that “this is a big moment for USC basketball.” The other Elite 8 appearance ended in a loss to eventual national champion Duke in 2001. That Trojan squad was led by Brian Scalabrine, Sam Clancy, David Bluthenthal, Brandon Granville and Jeff Trepagnier.
After a slow start on offense, the Trojans jumped all over Oregon. USC led 41-26 at the half as a result of a suffocating zone defense and very good three-point shooting. In one stretch the Trojans outscored Oregon 17-2 to build the lead to as many as 20 in the first half.
The Trojans started the game in a man defense but quickly changed to their zone.
“Our defense is better when we play big,” Enfield said. “In the zone we were able to keep Evan in the middle of the lane, and our bigs didn’t have to get out to the three point line to their shooters. We realized we can’t guard them man to man and win this game. They played a five-out offense.”
Isaiah White led the Trojans on offense, especially in the first half. He scored 22 points, tying his season high. He appeared very calm after the game, not showing much emotion in the post game media conference. I asked him if this was the best game he had ever played. There was a long pause and a hint of a smile before he simply said: “I would say so.”
The Trojans led by 21 with 7:35 left before the Ducks made a run while the Trojans were in a scoring drought. Oregon got to within 69-60. As he has so many times this season, Tahj Eaddy made a big three and the Ducks didn’t get to within single digits again. For most of the game the Trojans were clicking on both ends. In one second half possession Evan fumbled the ball in the lane and it went straight into Isaiah White’s hands and he drove for a layup.
During the drought, USC committed turnovers and had shot clock problems. On one possession Isaiah Mobley was forced to take a corner three to beat the buzzer and his shot bounded off the top of the backboard.
The Statistics Tell The Story
Oregon made only 10-32 shots in the first half and 3-12 from three. The Trojans made 16-28 (57%) and 5-8 from three. Isaiah White and Tahj led USC with 12 points each at the break. The Ducks’ two all conference performers, Chris Duarte and Eugene Omoruyi, were the only Ducks to have more than one basket in the half.
Enfield talked about how well USC has defended during the three tournament games. Drake and Kansas each made only 29% of their shots and Oregon did little better, making 25-68 (36%) and 5-21 (23%) from three. Enfield said that the coaching staff put in a zone defense during training camp but they had played man defense 90% of the time before getting to Indy.
“We played three smaller teams (in the tournament) who played four or five guards and forwards and we went to the zone so that we could play big defensively,” Enfield said. “We have played at a very high level in the three games.”
Against Oregon, the Trojans made 31-53 shots (53%) and 10-17 (58%) from three. The rebounds were even, though Oregon had 8 more offensive rebounds, mostly in the last minutes. Against the quick Ducks, the Trojans committed only 13 turnovers.
Tahj And Isaiah White Led The Scoring
Isaiah played a tremendous all-around game. He finished with 22 points, converting 8-10 shots and 4-5 from three. He also had 5 rebounds and 3 steals. Tahj scored 20 points, making 7-11 shots, 3-6 threes and 3-3 from the line and added 3 assists.
The Mobley brothers did not score big points but their presence dominated the game on both ends. Isaiah scored 13 points on 6-9 from the floor and added 6 boards. Evan took only six shots, making four, and finished with 10 points. He led the team with 8 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks.
Max Agbonkpolo played well in the zone and scored 9 points. He made 3-5 shots and 1-2 from three.
The Ducks’ individual stats tell a very different story. Omoruyi led the team with 28 points, making 9-19 shots. Duarte added 21, making half of his 16 shots. The rest of the Oregon starters were no-shows. LJ Figueroa misses 10 of his 12 shots and scored only 4 points. Point guard Will Richardson shot 2-8 for 5 points and Eric Williams was 1-7 and had only two points. All five average double figures, which is an indication of how much the Trojan zone bottled up the Ducks.
Isaiah White Was Very Calm After The Game
If anyone saw the Bruins celebrate after their overtime win against Alabama and expected to see the same level of excitement from the Trojans you would have been surprised or possibly disappointed. Perhaps the difference was the result of the Bruins needing overtime to win while the Trojans had their game well in hand from the middle of the first half. Isaiah was very calm and showed little emotion after the game. He said he knew he would have a good game after he made an early shot and was fouled and completed the three point play.
He made a point of saying the team was motivated this year when they learned they were picked to finish sixth in the conference, apparently using some of the same motivation that has carried Oregon State.
“Everyone doubted us,” he said.
Isaiah did say with the hint of a smile that “the team is super excited.” When asked if this run is something he will remember for the rest of his life he said that he is “living in the moment”.
He knows every game could be his last and that when the game starts he wants “the team to feed off of my energy.”
Enfield said that they did a lot of research on Isaiah, talking to fifteen or more people, and learned that “he is a really good person and a quality individual.” He added that Isaiah is married with his a baby and is well grounded.
Final Comments By Enfield
The coach had a very steady gaze while talking to the media after the game.
“When we shoot well we are a very hard team to beat,” Enfield said, adding that the Trojans made ten threes against Kansas and 11 against Oregon.
Enfield also talked about how hard it was to get this team ready to start the season.
“We didn’t meet the new transfer players in person until late August,” he said. “We weren’t able to evaluate the new players’ strengths and weakness until the fall.”
After he answered the final question, Enfield said he wanted to make a statement. He gave Evan’s shot and assist statistics for the last two games and said that when your most talented offensive player is also the most unselfish, it demonstrates how much he wants to win.
This team indeed is one of the best USC teams of the modern era. The two Mobley brothers have paired with a group of lesser known players from all over and the team has become a national force. If the Trojans were in any other region they would have a good chance to make the Final 4. Instead, beating Gonzaga will be very difficult. Four of the Zags are projected to be drafted this Spring and they have the size to match up against USC.
Enfield told me on Saturday that the staff had been breaking down game film of Gonzaga and working on a game plan for several days in the event the Trojans advanced. Undoubtedly the Zags’ staff has been doing the same thing.
Even if the Trojan team isn’t celebrating there is no reason that the fan base need to hold back. USC fans are almost always watching other teams at this point in March.
Some are asking whether this team’s success is the beginning of yearly top 25 rankings and post season success. It’s way too early and impossible to know the answer. Enfield has said he doesn’t know who will return to USC next year. We can safely assume next season’s Trojans will not have an Evan Mobley talent but will have more returning players with experience in Enfield’s system and a highly regarded freshman class. When everything shakes out over the next few months we can begin to consider next season’s prospects.
For now, let’s all hope the Trojans have another big game in them and the staff works up a great game plan.