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January 4, 2013The word was "hard."
The comeback after an unenergetic start was "hard." The Trojans played "hard."
Not that it's probably ever going to be otherwise for a Kevin O'Neill-coached team that has no choice if it hopes to win.
Basketball isn't supposed to be easy. But the Trojans, after winning their final pre-Pac-12 game by one point over Dayton Sunday, followed with a come-from-behind two-point romp over Stanford Thursday in front of a crowd of 3.026 at Galen Center (despite just 27 students in the student section at tipoff) to open Pac-12 play.
Sure, the Trojans dodged a couple of bullets at the buzzer after Jio Fontan hit a pair of free throws with 6.9 seconds left for the final margin.
"We should still be playing," O'Neill said after Stanford's Dwight Powell missed a wide-open follow slam at the horn.
But they're not. They're Pac-12 co-leaders at this moment, 1-0 in the league and 6-8 overall. Is this the start of something with Cal coming in Saturday?
And they are winners of that one because they didn't quit despite a lethargic first half that saw them down 42-33 after being outrebounded 20-8 despite the presence of two 7-footers on the floor.
But it may have been the smallest Trojan, 5-foot-9 walkon Chass Bryan, whose steal and score with 2:13 left put the Trojans up 67-65, only their second lead in the game, who made the biggest play.
"Biggest play of the game," said Fontan, of his guard-mate who had the Trojans playing small ball with 6-5 Byron Wesley out when his back "locked up" in the second half. All the little guys did was combine for 25 points (15 Fontan, 10 Bryan) while limiting Stanford's guards to three-of-16 shooting.
"He controlled the game," O'Neill said of Fontan's work at both ends. He also had four assists to just one turnover. But the game-changer in the second half mught have been 7-footer Dewayne Dedmon, who finished with 11 points and four big rebounds.
USC's fourth-double-figure scorer, the first time all season the Trojans put four in double figures, was reliable senior Eric Wise. He knocked down 14 points and hit a pair of three-pointers.
"He is a great player," Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins said. "He is strong. He probably is one of the most efficient players in the conference, maybe in the country. Look at his performance from the field, from the three. He is a very good player."
But as much as Fontan's final four-for-four free throw shooting mattered, it was his team's 27 of 53 from the field including hitting 50 percent or better both halves (52.0 percent in the first half, 50.0 percent the second).
"The ball's moving a little bit more," Fontan said. "And we're going inside-out" to the big men who are more often than not inside now and "drawing attention," Fontan said. Which makes it easier to run something that looks like an organized offense.
On the other end of the floor, the Trojans held Stanford to 39.0 percent (23 of 59) for the game from the field and just 26.7 (eight of 30) the second half.
"A great game," Dawkins called it. "They made some crucial plays at the end and we didn't make the plays we needed to make."
Dan Weber covers the Trojans program for USCFootball.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.