Basketball can be a fickle sport. It’s a game of rhythm and runs that can fluctuate wildly within one contest. Teams can seem efficient one minute and appear unaware of what to do with the ball the next.
USC experienced firsthand Saturday how the smallest actions can completely change a game. With just under 13 minutes left and USC up just three points, Utah sophomore forward Mikael Jantunen missed an open layup. USC pulled down the rebound, and its ensuing possession featured some impressive ball movement that ended in a tough layup by redshirt senior guard Tahj Eaddy.
It may not have appeared particularly significant at the time, but that four-point swing kicked off a 26-11 run that turned a competitive game into a 64-46 blowout win at home for the Trojans.
“Our goal is to get three stops in a row, so during that 12-minute mark when we were getting stops, we knew we just had to play solid on offense and we would be OK and make a run,” redshirt senior guard Isaiah White said postgame.
The Trojans’ old but new faces led the way — Eaddy scored 11 of his game-high 18 points in the final 13 minutes while fellow transfer junior guard Drew Peterson repeatedly crashed the offensive glass to create second-chance points — but the whole team banded together to wreak havoc on defense.
Hardly any of Utah’s possessions in the home stretch passed without the Trojans getting hands in passing lanes or on shots at the rim. USC’s frenzied effort resulted in Utah shooting just 4-for-30 from the field and scoring 18 points in the second half. That the Trojans held the Utes nearly 30 points below their average of 72.3 points per game is evidence that USC followed its defensive principles to a tee.
“We switched one through five on all ball screens, and our bigs were able to get out to the perimeter to challenge those 3-point shots,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “Our guards did a good job of rotating on their bigs, and if we had to help a small guard in the post we did so. It was a team effort.”
The strong finish was far from the only run in this game. USC started the game in an opposite manner to how it finished against Colorado Thursday: firing on all cylinders offensively. Whereas the Trojans scored four points in the final seven minutes against the Buffaloes, they went on a 20-4 run in the seven minutes after tip-off Saturday.
But after that, the offensive woes continued. The Trojans turned the ball over 10 times in the final 13:31 of the first half, creating easy run outs for Utah that led to a 24-12 run for the Utes. USC’s offense was completely out of sorts, as evidenced by the one combined shot attempt by forwards freshman Evan Mobley and sophomore Isaiah Mobley in the first 20 minutes.
“They had I think seven steals in the first half and that led to 12 points in transition, six uncontested layups. So that was our offense breaking down,” Enfield said. “They ramped their defense up and we had a lot of turnovers.”
It was an uncharacteristically passive performance for the Mobley brothers, especially Evan. The projected top-10 NBA Draft pick did not have a field goal attempt, scoring all three of his points at the free-throw line, and pulled down only five rebounds. Isaiah only made one of his three shots and finished with two points and five rebounds.
Although the talented brothers had their moments — both racked up multiple blocks and Isaiah threw a beautiful behind-the-back pass to Goodwin for one of his four assists — the Trojans will need more offensive production from the two. Evan led the team in points per game with 16.7 entering Saturday, and few teams can survive multiple showings like this from their best player.
“[Evan] could have forced some shots up, but he made the right decisions. They were double-teaming him on the catch, so they had people running at him, and they did a good job,” Enfield said. “We’re proud of Evan because he’s about winning, and this was a team win.”
In spite of that, the Trojans showed impressive resolve to beat a solid Utah team by almost 20 when two of their best players struggled so much. White and redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin picked up the slack by combining for 23 points, with both shooting an efficient 5-of-7 from the field. White in particular brought infectious energy that catalyzed USC’s strong start and kept the team going during the middle portion of the contest.
The Trojans start a road trip against Arizona in Tucson Thursday before facing Arizona State in Tempe on Saturday. After the frustrating loss to Colorado, the Trojans were happy to get their first Pac-12 win.
Even if they continue to struggle on offense, the Trojans know they have a baseline of great defense that can keep them in any matchup even as the competition gets more difficult and the games get more important.
“You can find offense as the game goes along, but if you can’t get stops you find yourself behind and on both sides of the ball you’ll be out of sorts,” Goodwin said. “Even though we didn’t have the offense we usually have, we still found ways to score and ways to get the win. But our defense had to be there regardless of what our offense was looking like.”
The Trojans tip off against the Wildcats Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. PST on ESPN2.