Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

Trojans might not win like artists, but they’re sure tough in the paint

- Mark Whicker Columnist

From 30,000 feet, this does not resemble a 21-6 team.

But this college hoop season is being played on the ground. Playing USC must look a little different from there.

The Trojans did not lead Saturday’s game at Pauley Pavilion until Tahj Eaddy, the man who had missed five of his six previous 3-pointers, took his final one.

It blasted through the net with 1.4 seconds left, and USC had 64 points and UCLA 63, and the Trojans didn’t know whether to wait for the bus or grab a getaway car.

Count the ways it shouldn’t have happened. USC had spent all its timeouts, which meant Ethan Anderson, the in-bounds passer, was helpless to stop the clock that was

counting to five in his head. It appeared he might lurch over the end line by the time Eaddy rushed to the corner to rescue him.

The Trojans kept clunking foul shots. They gave up an offensive rebound to Bruins point guard Tyger Campbell, who got it to Cody Riley, who put UCLA ahead 63-60 with 1:57 remaining.

Evan Mobley, USC’s possible first-overall draft pick, was held to 10 field goal attempts, and not just by the Bruins. There were no fastbreak points for USC (and only two by UCLA). There was no sustained wind at the back of any Trojan at any time. And yet USC is now positioned to win a solo Pac-12 championsh­ip if Oregon State can beat Oregon in Corvallis today.

“We didn’t really play well today,” said Eaddy. “To compete like that and to get it done from the defensive end is really special.”

The actual work product is impressive: Fifteen Pac12 victories, a 26-point win over BYU, a 14-point win at Arizona, an 8.1 rebound margin and a 10-point scoring margin.

The actual witnessing of the sausage making has not been as pleasant. The Trojans were lifeless in losses at Utah and Colorado last week when it appeared they might jog to the regular-season title, which is already devalued because USC and UCLA played Oregon only once apiece.

From afar, nothing seems easy for USC. But, on the ground, nothing seems easy for the teams they play. Only one USC opponent has shot 50% from the floor. Seven have shot .345 or worse.

“We had seven new players and only three returnees,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “It’s been an amazing effort. If you had told me we’d have this record at this time of the year I would have said, ‘Sign me up, just get us to the end.’

“But they have a great spirit and a camaraderi­e about them. When you walk into the gym, there is not a lot of nonsense.”

The Trojans knew Mobley and his brother Isaiah when the journey began, and they knew Anderson. But nobody knew the backup singers, the transfers who did not come from Power-5 leagues or even particular­ly successful programs, with the exception of Chevez Goodwin (Wofford). Flawed as they are, they’ve all played a ton of basketball. They got their stress vaccine long ago.

Drew Peterson hadn’t rung the bell very often, but when Anderson found him in transition, he stroked a 3-pointer, and USC was within 61-60 with 2:38 left. That was the grace note on a 7-0 run.

And Goodwin’s foulshooti­ng problems were beside the point. What he did was bring 12 points and four rebounds off the bench, and clog up the defensive lane, and shoot eight free throws overall, which stopped a clock that the Bruins were hoping would run faster.

Johnny Juzang, normally the most explosive Bruin, missed the game with injury. Still, if the Bruins hit free throws, they win. Bernard and Jaime Jaquez missed front ends of 1-and1s in the final minute. The Bruins’ field goal percentage slipped from 60 in the first half to 42.3 in the second, and they had only three assists on 11 secondhalf buckets.

“It was about guarding 1-on-1 and taking pride,” Eaddy said. “Once that kicked in, it helped us defensivel­y. We have to understand that and not get into holes like today. We’re not going to be as lucky as we were today.”

One suspects that with only two weeks left in the Pac-12 hoop season, that none of next Sunday’s selectees will survive the first weekend.

But what USC has done is weirdly remarkable. Asked if the club would get together to watch the Oregons today, Enfield reminded everyone that “you can’t have ‘watch parties’ with COVID-19.”

Keep your feet on the ground and you can have nearly everything else.

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