USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb referred to Thursday night’s matchup with UC Irvine as a “trap game” after her team returned home to the Galen Center from a Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Cancun.
The Trojans, albeit narrowly, didn’t take the bait.
USC grinded out a tough 78-69 win Thursday against a gritty UC Irvine team that pushed the Trojans to the limit.
However, in the end, the Anteaters couldn’t find an answer for USC sophomore forward Jordyn Jenkins, who filled up the stat sheet with a career-high 24 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field, seven rebounds, two assists, four blocks and three steals. Just for good measure, she also drew seven fouls and made 8-of-10 free throws.
“I think I am just someone who wants to draw a foul,” Jenkins said, though she hadn’t taken more than five free throws in a game this season prior to Thursday night. “I found that it was not easy, but I could maneuver in and try to draw something just to get some more points on the board.”
USC struggled early to break the unrelenting UCI press that consistently picked up USC junior guard Kyra White in the backcourt on every inbound, leading to multiple turnovers. White made her first start of the season Thursday night in the absence of senior guard Desiree Caldwell, who Gottlieb said postgame was unavailable. Still, USC was able to fight back from a quick 11-5 deficit to tie the game at 13 on a jumper by Jenkins.
UCI head coach Tamara Inoue was not afraid to showcase the depth of her team from the start, using 12 different players in just the opening quarter. This depth helped UCI keep up its incessant press throughout the night.
“It’s just not something you face every day. We knew they were going to press, but we initially didn’t know it would be every possession,” said Gottlieb on her team’s early press break issues. “It’s hard to simulate it in a quick prep, just the chaotic nature.”
In response to the aggressive UCI defense, Jenkins often found openings in the paint, which she cashed in on frequently in the first half to the tune of 13 points on 4-of-5 shooting.
The Anteaters’ offense was especially reliant on the guard tandem of redshirt sophomore Chloe Webb and redshirt freshman Kayla Williams, who scored 13 of 19 UCI points in the first quarter, after which the Anteaters led by one.
After a 7-for-14 start from the field, the UCI offense slowed down, only shooting 2-for-11 for a stretch; this bolstered the Trojans’ offense as it provided a respite from the persistent UCI press.
A solo eight-point run by graduate transfer forward Naomi Hunt stopped the cold streak, putting the Anteaters ahead 33-32 with under four to play in the first half. UCI used this offensive success to flip the game’s momentum, holding USC without a field goal in the last 7:29 of the second quarter.
“We just had some trouble getting together as a collective,” Jenkins said. “We were breaking the press, but I think we needed to get into more of an offense.”
The Trojans stayed in the game thanks to frequent trips to the free throw line, making nine of 11 chances from the charity stripe in the second quarter. USC still faced a 40-36 deficit going into halftime.
Forwards freshman Rayah Marshall and junior Alissa Pili, two of the Trojans’ top four scorers, couldn’t get things going despite numerous opportunities near the basket, shooting a combined 3-for-14 before the break.
Coming out of halftime, Jenkins continued to lead the way for USC, and her steal into an and-one layup quickly put the Trojans back in front again at 46-45. The Trojans’ offense began to improve as a whole, including graduate forward Tera Reed, who scored seven of her nine points in the third.
Meanwhile, as the game progressed, the Trojans’ defense came to match the intensity and havoc of the Anteaters, forcing six UCI turnovers in the third as USC found itself ahead 55-53 heading into the final frame. In a “revenge” game against her former school from Orange County, grad transfer forward Jordan Sanders contributed four second-half steals that led to fast-break points.
“Both Jordyn and Jordan created some easy baskets just with turnovers,” Gottlieb said, adding the importance of avoiding the UCI press as much as possible.
UCI wouldn’t go away quietly though, as Williams, the Anteaters’ leading scorer on the season, did her best to keep her team competitive and finished with a team-high 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting.
The game was tied at 61 when junior guard Alyson Miura made her first three of the night with under six minutes left. What followed was the largest cheer of the night from the Galen Center crowd, and a 13-2 Trojan run over the subsequent four-and-a-half minutes to ice the game for USC in a valiant team performance.
Another Hunt three, which cut the lead to five with 18 ticks on the clock, kept things somewhat interesting, but the Trojans continued their effective second-half passing against the UCI press to notch their fifth win of the season.
Aside from Jenkins, the Trojans’ offense wasn’t particularly efficient, shooting 33% from the field without including the sophomore’s dominant performance.
Ultimately, it was USC’s 16-to-9 advantage on the offensive boards and a 22-of-26 performance at the free throw line, as compared to 10-of-13 by UCI, that proved vital for the Trojans in a highly contested, back-and-forth game.
USC, now 5-2, will remain at home for a clash with San Francisco on Sunday at 2 p.m. The 4-3 Anteaters will return to Irvine for their next matchup against San Diego on Dec. 11.