First off, nice win. USC absolutely needed the win to keep any semblance of NCAA tourney hopes alive. Even so, if there were nothing on the line they still needed to play for pride after entering the league play expecting to contend for a conference title. Well dear readers it has been a long time since the Pac 10 opener against the Oregon back in January, and it is just short of amazing how well this one game over Cal kind of encapsulated the season up to this point.
USC got out to a brisk start and went into the half with a very comfortable 42-27 lead and a seemingly clear path to victory, or in the context of the season as a whole, a 3rd place finish or higher. But the Trojans switched gears a bit coming out of the break and the helplessness at times against Cals offense, especially on the turnover fueled back-to-back fast breaks, was highly reminiscent of the losses to the bruins and the Arizona Schools.
Then SC picked it up a bit and looked like they had regained some momentum (WSU anybody?), but despite timely jumpers from Derozan that kept the team out front they just could not stem Cal's momentum built on strong 3 point shooting from Patrick Christopher. And frankly, up until 3 seconds to go it looked like OT and another late loss just like the Bay Area games just two short weeks ago. But Daniel Hackett put the Italian two-step on the Bears to draw a crucial late game foul, and then he sealed the deal with two silky smooth free throws followed by a Cal turnover followed by two more clutch FTs.
MORE AFTER THE JUMP!!
So here it is. I wouldn't exactly call this past game a crucible moment as it is simply too late in the year to apply some kind of goofy season defining narrative and the Trojans could very well come out flat and drop the next game without a second thought. However everyone who watched the first half of this game saw how much fire and talent this team can have when they come out and play to their potential, and although it is cliche anything can happen during tournament time. It only takes one little run, and these players are more than capable of coming up big and finishing the season strong.
Clearly the top performers were Taj Gibson and Demar Derozan, who both had double doubles, and Hackett fell just short of a triple double with 15 points, 9 boards, and 7 assists. But the most encouraging thing I saw had to be the way Dwight Lewis played tonight. Lewis shot very poorly, hitting only 4-18 on the night, but he was 3-6 on three pointers and frankly SC probably doesn't win the game if he doesn't make that final three. Beyond the stat sheet though, Dwight really pulled himself out of his recent psychological funk and finally started to call his own number on offense by taking those open looks. If USC wants to win the next two games they are going to need Lewis for better or for worse, and it looks like he might finally have his confidence back after a tough stretch over the last 5 games.
As I type this, ucla is putting a bit of a beating on Washington State and has a 12 point lead at half time. In the Cal game thread a few people said go Cougs at the end, but I am all for one more shot at the bruins. It is probably a significantly easier path to the title game through WSU, but I would much rather have one more game against the enemy as a tourney title game appearance at the expense of ucla would make things that much sweeter. So let's go Trojans, its crunch time and each additional game is now effectively the most important game of the year.
FIGHT ON and WIN THE PAC-10 TOURNEY!!