USC men’s basketball uses hot start and dominant finish to take down Dixie State

The Trailblazers hung with the Trojans in the middle portion of the game, but USC pulled away.

A photo of USC junior forward Max Agbonkpolo attempting a shot in a white uniform with the number 23.

If you only watched the final six minutes of the first half and the first two minutes of the second half between Dixie State and USC Monday night, you might’ve thought the No. 24 Trojans were at risk of quite the upset.

But an early 22-5 lead and an 18-point advantage in the final 17:30 more than made up for a shaky middle portion of the game, as USC men’s basketball cruised to a 98-71 victory and a 4-0 record on the young season.

Dixie State, which lost Saturday to a Cal State Northridge team the Trojans beat by 40 in their season opener, put a fair amount of pressure on the hosts in the middle minutes of the game, keeping the Trojan fans in attendance at least somewhat uneasy heading into halftime.

The Trailblazers used a 12-7 run in the final three-and-a-half minutes of the opening frame to cut the once-19-point lead to 11 at the break.

“We made some defensive mistakes that are uncharacteristic with a lot of switching — we were supposed to be switching and then we weren’t,” head coach Andy Enfield said. “They made it tough on us. We [got] burnt backdoor a couple times. Just silly defensive mistakes that we haven’t made. So we have to get better at that.”

At least initially, Dixie State didn’t skip much of a beat to begin the second half, but the Trojans turned the tide shortly thereafter. Once Dixie State cut the lead to nine as late as the 17:50 mark, USC turned to its leading scorer through the first three games of the season, and that’s when the breakaway began.

Junior guard Boogie Ellis’ deep 3-pointer, which bounced high off the back of the rim and dropped straight down for the bucket, put USC up 12 with 17:05 remaining in the game.

Ellis rattled another triple home two possessions later, and Dixie State never got closer than a dozen points. Backed by Ellis and his 19-point, 58% performance, the Trojans reincarnated their early-game dominance to pull away — and then some.

“Focus,” said redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin, who had a game-high 11 rebounds, of the turnaround. “Ourselves as a team, we have to be more focused and just ready to play. No matter if it’s Dixie State, Gonzaga, whoever the other team name is, we have to be ready to play … If we control the things we can control and take care of what we need to take care of, the game will be easy.”

USC had five players score in double figures on the night, its most of any game this season. Junior guard Ethan Anderson added to his strong early season, dropping 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting and 2-for-5 from deep. Junior forward Max Agbonkpolo contributed 17 points, including a much-needed 3-for-7 performance from deep after struggling to a 1-for-8 mark through the season’s first three games.

“I started out cold; it was getting to my head throughout the first three games,” Agbonkpolo said. “I felt like I was thinking about it too much shooting the ball. But my teammates just told me, ‘Keep on shooting, keep on shooting,’ same with the coaches. And finally some fell for me tonight, so I was happy.”

Not included among those five double-digit scorers but worthy of a mention was freshman guard Reese Dixon-Waters, who chipped in eight points off the bench in just six minutes of play in the first half.

Dixon-Waters was part of a couple rare four- and five-man substitutions Enfield employed in the first half, turning to his bench when the Trojans were up 19-5 in an effort to get USC’s younger players in the game. The group was able to expand (albeit slightly) on that lead, exiting ahead by 15 points with just under seven minutes to go in the half.

“We have a lot of depth, a lot of interchangeable parts this year, and some guys play well certain nights and some don’t,” Enfield said. “Last year in our Elite Eight run, we had certain players step up in a game-to-game basis, and we’re expecting the same here. So I did think our second group that we brought in played really well.”

Interestingly, it wasn’t until Enfield put his starters back in that the Trojans began to struggle, watching a 31-16 lead devolve into the 11-point advantage at halftime.

But despite the early chipping, a tough second half in the form of an 11-for-41 offensive output didn’t particularly help the Trailblazer cause. Junior guard Cameron Gooden and sophomore forward Frank Staine combined for 20 in the half, but they received far too little support — no other Trailblazer exceeded four points — to keep up with USC’s 51-point second-half outburst.

USC will try to maintain that offensive momentum and regain defensive consistency in the Paycom Wooden Legacy in Anaheim, where they’ll take on St. Joseph’s on Thanksgiving Day and either Georgetown or San Diego State on Friday.

“We have to clean up our defensive mistakes. Get ready for a two-game tournament, we have four good teams in it. Should be a lot of fun,” Enfield said. “We’re usually a few thousand miles away for Thanksgiving. We’re usually at these tournaments all over the country. It’ll be nice to be here.”