“We tried not to use COVID as an excuse,” junior forward Isaiah Mobley said postgame, and teammate senior guard Drew Peterson echoed the sentiment.
The Trojans could have easily used COVID as an excuse to come out flat against a hot Cal team Thursday and perhaps lose their first game of the season. After all, almost the entire team tested positive for the virus in late December as cases have surged over the last month.
But, in its first game in 19 days, USC added yet another quality road win to its resumé with a 77-63 victory at Cal.
“We were concerned coming off the 19-day break between our last game,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “Our players did a good job of getting back in shape in just a few days, and I thought the fatigue didn’t affect our performance.”
In fact, the Trojans’ offense came out playing as well as ever, as their 1.2 points per possession Thursday night was their best mark since putting up 93 points on 72 possessions against Utah on Dec. 1. Mobley continued his stellar season with 19 points and nine rebounds, and Peterson had one of his best games as a Trojan with 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting and nine rebounds.
Cal’s experienced frontcourt of senior forwards Grant Anticevich and Andre Kelly tested the rusty Trojans’ defense for much of the game, and the Golden Bears’ 41% shooting from the field was a season high among USC’s opponents.
“Cal is a great team… They came out really physical, and the refs let us play,” Mobley said. “Down the stretch, we just tightened up.”
Now one of only three remaining undefeated teams in college basketball, many fans in Los Angeles and around the country were curious to see how USC would return from an almost three-week COVID pause. This wasn’t an easy spot for the Trojans either, facing a Cal team on a five-game win streak, including a 74-50 dismantling of Arizona State on Jan. 2.
Although the game was anticipated to be a defensive slugfest, both teams started out shooting well from the field. Cal had held its last five opponents to 60 points or fewer prior to Thursday night, and USC came into Thursday leading the nation in effective field goal percentage allowed, according to KenPom rankings. The closing total for the game was 129 points, yet this Pac-12 After Dark matchup turned into a shootout early, with 27 points in a fast-paced opening five minutes.
The game slowed down after the under-16 media timeout, as USC followed the break with a three-and-a-half minute scoring drought. Cal only had two points of its own during the stretch, as both defenses seemed to settle in after a high-octane start.
“It was 14-13 at the first media timeout, so it was definitely high-scoring, but we really ended up locking down,” said Peterson on how his team was able to shake off the rust of the COVID break on defense.
Mobley picked up where he left off prior to USC’s COVID pause with 12 points and six rebounds in the first half; he had at least 20 points and 10 rebounds in four of his last six games before the pause. On the other side, Cal saw some surprising offensive success against a formidable USC paint defense with its bigs Anticevich and Kelly, who started a combined 5-for-8 from the field.
USC’s length showed on the offensive boards, where the Trojans held an 8-1 advantage late in the first half. Still, the Golden Bears were able to hang with their visitors, thanks in part to a lively crowd at Haas Pavilion that rose to the occasion against a top-10 ranked conference opponent. USC headed into the half with a 36-31 lead after both teams significantly cooled off from their fiery starts.
Like Mobley, Peterson was playing his best basketball leading up to the Trojans’ holiday break. After scoring in double figures in six of his last seven outings, Peterson found plenty of holes in the Bears’ zone defense on his way to eight first-half points.
“I started 0-for-3, so it was a little bit scary at first,” Peterson said about finding his shot after returning to live game action. “But I got into a rhythm and my teammates trust me to make the right passes and take the right shots, and thankfully I was able to get going and help my team win tonight.”
An 8-0 run early in the second period helped USC somewhat separate itself to a double-digit margin over Cal. After a first half dictated largely by both frontcourts, each team’s lead guard — junior Ellis for the Trojans and senior Jordan Shepherd for the Golden Bears — began to duel after the break.
It appears Ellis has found his scoring groove again, following up his 16 points against Georgia Tech back on Dec. 18 with 14 points on 5-for-9 shooting against Cal. Meanwhile, Shepherd, who ended the night with 17 points, hit two free throws to cut the USC lead back to four with ten minutes to go, to the delight of an increasingly rowdy Berkeley crowd.
Yet, as it has done all season long, USC’s resilient squad displayed its ability to withstand opposing runs. Mobley, who was named to the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 Watchlist on Wednesday, scored on consecutive possessions, including his second three of the night, to silence the Cal faithful.
This prompted the Trojans to pull away for good, as a three late in the shot clock by junior forward Max Agbonkpolo hit nothing but net. The shot pushed the USC lead to 13 with less than four to go, as the Trojans’ sought to complete their seventh straight win against the Golden Bears.
A last-ditch run by Cal made things a little interesting by cutting the deficit back to three possessions with under two minutes left, but a Peterson triple and an emphatic dunk by redshirt senior forward Chevez Goodwin put the game away. With 12 points and four rebounds, it wasn’t Goodwin’s flashiest game, but he was a big reason USC dominated Cal 50-14 on points in the paint and 39-24 in rebounds.
“We were proud of our players to turn the defensive intensity up throughout the game and try to make it as hard as we could [for Cal],” Enfield said. “The advantage in the paint was a point of emphasis for us, because our bigs can score in the lane, and our guards got to the rim as well.”
The 77-63 win vaults the Trojans to their fourth-best start in program history at 13-0. This was already USC’s seventh win away from home this season, which is tied for the most in the nation.
USC will have a chance to remain perfect on the road when it visits Stanford on Tuesday at 2 p.m.