Stout defense, timely scoring and late free-throw shooting pushed the Trojans across the finish line in their 76-65 road victory against the Washington State Cougars.
No. 20 USC started fast, grabbing an early 12-point lead fueled by redshirt senior Tahj Eaddy, who poured in 11 of USC’s first 17 points. Turnovers and poor defensive rebounding by the Trojans allowed the Cougars to get back in the game, and, behind a team-wide offensive effort, they cut their deficit to six by halftime.
“We made up ways to turn the ball over in the first half,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “We had charges. We dribbled the ball off our foot … it was just a frustrating first half.”
Despite the Cougars’ response, Eaddy did not slow down, pouring in a career-high 29 points and shooting 10-for-16 from the field.
“Tahj is spectacular,” Enfield said. “He just controlled the game.”
On the other side, senior guard Isaac Bonton, the Cougars’ leading scorer, struggled to find a rhythm. After scoring at least 20 points in four of his last five games, he was the clear focus of the Trojan defense tonight, managing just 17 points on 0-for-6 from deep.
The struggles rippled throughout the Cougar offense as they shot 12% from beyond the arc. They found no success on the interior either, as freshman forward Evan Mobley tied his career-high with six blocks to go along with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
“Some years, a game like this might have slipped away,” Enfield said. “The last four and a half minutes our defense was outstanding.”
With just over two minutes to play, trailing by six, the Cougars deployed the “Hack-a-Shaq” tactic, intentionally fouling sophomore forward Isaiah Mobley to force him to the free-throw line. Mobley, just 44% from the line on the season, sank both free throws to push the lead to eight.
It is no secret that USC has struggled from the line this season. In fact, they came into tonight’s contest ranked 306th in the nation in free-throw percentage, yet the Trojans went 5-for-7 from the charity stripe in the last two minutes to ice away the game.
“You have to make your free throws, which we did,” Enfield said.
Early on Saturday, the selection committee released its one-time early look at the top 16 seeds on the “NCAA March Madness Bracket Preview” on CBS. Despite sitting atop the Pac-12, the release did not include the 17-3 Trojans.
“We don’t even consider where we’re going to be seeded. We just have to focus on the game. This is a marathon season,” Enfield said of the release. “The committee will do what it does, but there’s so much basketball left to be played I think it’s pointless right now to even consider that.”
“It’s nice to get some recognition,” Enfield added, but he made it clear that the team is happy with what they have done to this point in the season.
The No. 20 Trojans, who seem poised to rise in the rankings when they release on Monday, host Arizona State on Wednesday. The Sun Devils, despite their struggles, boast an immensely talented roster with the likes of senior guard Remy Martin and five-star freshman guard Josh Christopher. They pose a tough challenge for the Trojans who will look to pick up their seventh consecutive victory.