Generally, it can be rather difficult to put a label on USC basketball. In a lot of ways, this current Trojans team has been somewhat of an enigma thus far.
At times, they look like a team spiraling out of control and headed for a finish toward the bottom half of the Pac-10 conference. For instance, on Thursday, they blew a fifteen point lead and surrendered 43 second half points in a frustrating 67-60 loss to Washington State. The Trojans, who are regarded as one of the nation's better defensive teams, watched themselves get embarrassed by a Cougar bunch that shot 44.4% from the field. In many ways, it was the low point of the season.
"We had to win all our home games," Kevin O'Neill told the media following the frustrating defeat. "This one was crucial. To be in the upper echelon of the Pac-10, we had to have this one....We [also] have a great defense, and that's why [it] was so disappointing, because that let us down in the second half."
But despite the low point of Thursday's contest against Washington State, Saturday proved to be an occasion when the Trojans looked like that team many called a dark horse candidate to take home the Pac-10 title. That is because they dominated Washington in nearly every facet of the game, scoring a season-high 87 points while also limiting the high-powered Husky offense to just 61 points.
O'Neill, who described the Trojans as "offensively challenged" earlier this week, watched all five starters finish in double figures, including Marcus Johnson (22 points), Dwight Lewis (19), Alex Stepheson (15), Mike Gerrity (15), and Nikola Vucevic (11).
Johnson was by far the most impressive on the offensive end, as he underwent his best performance of the season thus far. Not only did he score 22 points, but he went 9-of-11 from the field and recorded 5 and 4 assists. Additionally, his thunderous dunks proved to be huge momentum swings, as they helped motivate the team and get the crowd involved, which made the Huskies' comeback attempts all the more unlikely.
At one point, with six minutes left to play and the score 69-48, Washington's Quincy Pondexter missed a three-point attempt. Vucevic grabbed the rebound and passed it to Gerrity, who from beyond mid-court, proceeded to throw an incredible lob pass to Johnson, who produced a thunderous slam dunk.
At this moment it was clear. At any point, the Trojans could have folded up and just flat out quit. After all, their loss to Washington State put a dimmer on their conference championship hopes, and with a postseason ban, there was little reason to believe that this bunch had anything left to play for.
But that wasn't the case against the Huskies, as Gerrity and the Trojans took advantage of every opportunity to press the envelope and come up with a strong performance. When they had opening, they seized the opportunity and looked to better themselves.
When Washington turned the ball over, the Trojans capitalized on those mistakes and turned them into scoring opportunities on the other end.
But while taking advantage of the opposition, ‘SC was largely able to earn the 26-point victory on Saturday night due to a strong defensive performance. The Trojans held UW, which averages 78.6 points per game and 44.0% shooting, to numbers well below their season averages. The Huskies finished with just 61 points (just 29 in the second half) and 37 percent shooting. It was a welcomed development, especially after they had allowed 45% shooting to Washington State.
But Saturday's potentially season changing victory was not only important from the standpoint that the Trojans played their most complete game of the season, but also due to the fact that the "W" in the wins column keeps them in position to continue challenging for the Pac-10 crown. The win enables ‘SC, which was picked to finish ninth in the conference during the preseason, to move into a five-way tie for second place along with Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and Stanford.
With 5-2 Cal holding a one game lead in the standings, there is no doubt that the Trojans have an excellent opportunity to earn a conference title. The only question is which team will show up over the remaining eleven games.