USA TODAY Sports
USC (4-7) turned the ball over 16 times and couldn't come back from a 12-point halftime deficit as UC Irvine (6-7) defeated the Trojans, 61-54, Thursday night at the Galen Center.
-- BREAKING IT DOWN --
Key moment(s): Letting Irvine Off the Hook. USC didn't need to help UC Irvine out. The Anteaters already had the lead. USC had trimmed that lead from 14 to five with 3:15 remaining, but gave up an uncontested layup with two seconds remaining on the shot clock on the following defensive possession. The Trojans then went turnover, missed layup, turnover on their next three possessions. Irvine didn't score after its layup with 2:38 to go, but they didn't have to.
Player of the game: Daman Starring. Hot from outside all night, Irvine's Daman Starring made five of his six 3-pointers and finished with a game 23 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and had an assist.
Most Spectacular Play: Omar Oraby dunk. USC's 7-foot-2 big man didn't attempt a field goal in the first half, but the Trojans were determined to get him the ball after halftime. He was fouled on the first possession and threw down a dunk on USC's second possession. Byron Wesley set up the bucket by slashing into the lane and dropping it off to Oraby.
Unsung Hero: Omar Oraby. There weren't any great individual efforts on the USC side, but Oraby did finish with 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting (all his field goal attempts coming in the second half). Oraby also had three rebounds, two assists and two blocks.
But after the game coach Kevin O'Neill called Oraby the "epitome of us" because he "doesn't play hard all the time." As with almost all his players, O'Neill is still looking for a consistent performance from Oraby. O'Neill was especially frustrated with a layup Irvine scored late in the second half following a missed USC free throw when Oraby was beaten down the floor.
"When you're trying to come back, that's a killer," O'Neill said. "Right now, we have a bunch of guys that are making two or three mistakes. When you have 10 guys that make two or three mistakes each, next thing you know you have 20 or 30 mistakes and it's hard to beat anybody doing that."
"Step It Up:" Slow starts. There seems to be a stretch in every first half when the Trojans struggle. Tonight, USC went seven minutes in the middle of the half scoring only one field goal and then gave up two separate 7-0 runs in the final nine minutes of the half, including one that was a part of an 11-3 run to end the half.
"You can't ease into games. We talk about it every day. We can't ease into practice; we can't ease into games; we can't ease into anything," O'Neill said. "But for whatever reason we ease into every first half. Once again we win the second half, but it doesn't matter because your down 12 at the half at home. That's hard."
"It's inexplicable. We're a rudderless ship right now and that comes back to me as the coach."
Senior Eric Wise added that USC needs "to come out and play hard. We have all the pieces, we just have to put them together."
USC also needs fifth-year senior Jio Fontan to step up. He finished the game with seven assists but had four turnovers and only two points on 1-of-6 shooting. After the game, O'Neill said USC can't win if Fontan has a bad night.
Key stat: 16 turnovers. USC had eight turnovers in each half, but the source was different in each half. In the first 20 minutes, six of the eight turnovers came from post players. The guards gave it up the majority of the time in the second half. But more importantly, the mistakes are often unforced errors...Fontan stepped out of bounds while preparing to catch and shoot a 3-pointer, JT Terrell had a ball go right through his hands and out of play, Dewayne Dedmon threw a pass right into the arm of a defender.
"It's things that are really difficult to live with," O'Neill said of what he estimated to be 12 unforced turnovers.
Sideline Strategy: There was indeed a JT Terrell sighting and after he checked in, he never checked out. Terrell played the final 15 minutes of the game and finished 2-for-6 (all 3-point attempts). He played solid defense and pressured the offensive players he guarded when they had the ball.
"If JT plays defense like he did tonight, I'll play him," O'Neill said. "If he doesn't, I won't play him. Plain and simple."
The defensive effort was there, evidenced by the three personal fouls he picked up, each for being too aggressive. Terrell was effectively 2-for-4 because his last two attempts were both last minute, last ditch efforts and the team finished +3 while he was on the court.
Terrell's minutes came at the expense of Renaldo Woolridge (two minutes in the first half) and Greg Allen (DNP). The other reserve guards did not see much playing time either as O'Neill relied heavily on Fontan, Wesley and Wise, who averaged 34 minutes each. Backup point guard Chass Bryan had one of his shortest outings of the season, playing only six minutes.
Interestingly, O'Neill decided to play backup post players Aaron Fuller and James Blasczyk together for a long stretch of time in the first half and for a three-minute stretch in the second half. Oraby saw only seven ineffective minutes in the first half, but O'Neill rode him in the second half when Oraby had better production.
Reserve swingman Ari Stewart, once believed to be an important member of the rotation, did not play for the second time in three games and has now only played four minutes in the last four games.
Where They Stand: At 4-7, the Trojans are in trouble. It's not going to be an easy turnaround either as USC will fly across the country tomorrow and prepare to play Georgia Saturday afternoon at 1:30 ET (10:30 PT). The Bulldogs (3-7) are also struggling this year, but they are coming off a win and will playing on their home court.
USC only has two games remaining before the conference schedule begins after the new year, meaning the Trojans are assured of having a losing record entering Pac-12 play.