-- BREAKING IT DOWN --
Key moment(s): Scoring in bunches. In foul trouble throughout the first half, JT Terrell attempted only one shot. In fact, Terrell didn't score his first field goal until nearly 32 minutes into the game.
But when he drained a 3-pointer with 8:30 remaining, the switch flipped. On the next USC possession, he hit another 3-pointer to give the Trojans a 49-47 lead after they had trailed by seven points earlier in the half.
"They were playing a matchup 2-3 zone," interim head coach Bob Cantu said. "Jio [Fontan] did a great job of slicing it up and hitting JT. Two times in a row he had good looks and he knocked them down. That was a little bit of a momentum shift for us that helped us get over the hump."
The teams traded baskets and free throws until a pair of free throws by the Cougars tied the game 53-53.
Fontan found Terrell in the corner for another big basket. On the subsequent possession, Washington State threw the ball away with the shot clock winding down. Terrell stole the ball and took it coast to coast for the fastbreak layup that put USC up five points.
In a span of less than four minutes, the streaky Terrell helped turn a four-point deficit into a five-point lead for the Trojans. Eleven of Terrell's 12 points on the night occurred during the span. He wouldn't get another shot as he fouled a minute later. Even without Terrell's hot shooting, the Trojans didn't look back as they built an eight-point lead and withstood a late Cougars' three-point onslaught to win 72-68.
Player of the game: Byron Wesley. Wesley scored 13 points in the first half to carry the Trojans. He finished with a season-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Wesley attacked Washington State's zone with his slashing drives and was able to find open creases when he was off the ball.
"He's kind of like a running back in there," Cantu said." You get him the ball and he can find the holes in the zone and make plays. He's playing very poised and patient."
He also finished with eight rebounds -- one shy of his career-high -- despite having only two in the first half. Though he turned the ball over five times, Wesley did also contribute one steal and a block.
Most Spectacular Play: Lay it in at the buzzer. Washington State used a 5-0 run and held USC scoreless for the final 2:29 of the first half to build a 33-28 lead. The Cougars had an opportunity to build on that lead when USC turned the ball over with 11 seconds to go. Instead a Washington State miss turned into a rebound outlet that Wesley caught at the three-point line. Three steps later, he laid the ball in tenths of a second before the halftime buzzer sounded.
Unsung Hero: Jio Fontan. Battling the flu all week, Jio Fontan didn't even practice this week. He even had to take intravenous fluids earlier this week after barely being able to get out of the bed. It didn't show on the court Thursday night.
"Jio's our floor general," Wesley said. "We always look at Jio whether he's playing good, whether he might have missed some shots. Regardless, we're looking for Jio. He's our leader and at the end of the day, we're going to let Jio take us home.
Fontan played 36 minutes in regulation for only the fourth time this season. He also tied his career-high with 11 assists and notched his second career double-double by adding 10 points. He was a perfect 8 for 8 from the free throw line and added three rebounds and his third block of the season.
"Step It Up:" Big man...little impact. Omar Oraby, USC's 7-foot-2 behemoth, made basically the same impact as the Trojans end-of-the-bench walk-ons Thursday night. Oraby played eight minutes, missed his only shot, grabbed two rebounds and committed three fouls. That was it. He managed only two minutes in the second half due to his ineffectiveness.
Key stat: 18 for 22. After the Trojans went to the free throw line on only one occasion in the first half, interim head coach Bob Cantu told his team to be more aggressive. USC made the adjustment. With a renewed emphasis on driving the ball to the basket, the Trojans shot 20 second-half free throws, making 85 percent. And when it mattered most in the final minute, USC was 8-for-10.
Sideline Strategy: Following the best game of his USC career, Aaron Fuller was forced to miss practice with a sprained ankle. He only played five minutes in the first half and didn't check in until there were only 11:20 remaining in the second half. But then he never left. The 6-foot-7 undersized post played the final 11:20, mostly in tandem with small forward Eric Wise. It was the same small lineup that allowed USC to separate from UCLA last week.
"A lot of our league is somewhat undersized, so we're kind of matching up to them," Cantu said. "Going small makes it a little bit easier to defend a lot of their ball screens when we switch and things like that."
With the assistance of Terrell's shooting burst, the Fuller/Wise forward grouping worked again on Thursday. Fuller battled his way to six points (on a perfect 3-for-3) and seven rebounds. The Trojans had a +12 scoring differential when Fuller and Wise were on the court together in the second half.
Where They Stand: With the win, USC now sits firmly in the middle of the pack in the Pac-12 standings. The Trojans are now 5-5 in conference play. That puts them tied for fifth in league play. If the Trojans can sneak their way into the top four by the end of the regular season, they would earn a bye in the first round of the Pac-12 Conference Tournament in Las Vegas.
With the way the Trojans have played the last four weeks, there's no reason to believe they couldn't put together a run and steal the conference tournament title. There is no team that has proved itself unbeatable. Arizona is a talented team that took USC out behind the woodshed in Tucson and Oregon is a top 10-15 caliber team when healthy, but USC has shown it can play with anyone when the Trojans are making some shots.
Even if it falls short of the Pac-12 title, a good run down the stretch could put USC in position to potentially get a postseason invite -- though obviously not to the Big Dance.
USC has a crucial conference game that could go a long way to determining seeding on Sunday night when the Trojans will welcome Washington to the Galen Center at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on FSN.