O.J. Mayo has been called a rental player – someone who is kindly lending his services to USC for a season, while he bides his time until the NBA Draft. Some have implied – publicly – that it makes him less of a team player and the Trojans less of a team.
Saturday, in a virtual must-win at home against Washington, Mayo got started with one of his most unproductive stretches of the season. The Pac-10's second-leading scorer had one point at halftime. About seven minutes into the second half, he grabbed the rebound off another miss, went back up and came down hard, from a Matthew Bryan-Amaning foul.
Mayo made both free throws, limped to the bench, and buried his face in his jersey, while an assistant coach pondered the freshman's right hip. Washington soon had its first lead, with 11:18 remaining. Seconds later, Mayo stepped to the scorer's table to check back in.
While hobbling back and forth for the final 10-plus minutes, Mayo scored nine of his 15 points and helped lead the Trojans on an offensive and defensive onslaught that culminated in a cozy, 63-47, victory.
"I feel good," Mayo said with a smile, although the grunts as he struggled into his shorts implied otherwise. "I feel better than Thursday."
Thursday, Mayo scored 22, but the Trojans (10-6, 1-3 Pac-10) lost their third-straight game to open the conference schedule.
"I couldn't imagine going 0-4 and playing UCLA at their place," sophomore guard Daniel Hackett said.
Still, coach Tim Floyd said, "I don't believe in that momentum thing – that this game has an effect on the next game, this loss has an effect on the next game – if you have competitors. Just because we won today doesn't mean it will be easier next week."
USC has six days to prepare for the No. 5 Bruins, who spent much of Saturday beating up on Washington State – the same Washington State that had defeated USC by 15 points two days before.
The Trojans credited the victory to defense – their strength through a non-conference season that saw near misses against Top 5 teams Kansas and Memphis.
"How did you regain your lead? You guarded your way through tough times," Floyd said. "The other night, things got tough, and the looks got easier for Washington State. Tonight, they didn't.
USC forced 20 Washington turnovers, while giving the ball away 12 times. Taj Gibson had three of the Trojans' seven steals. The team also boosted itself at the foul line, making 20-of-24, after entering the game shooting 68.4 percent.
After USC fell behind 43-42, freshman point guard Angelo Johnson – who received fluids through an intravenous needle at halftime – sparked a 14-0 run. His driving driving lay-in gave the Trojans a one-point lead, and his air-born assist to Taj Gibson helped make it three. Gibson's slam dunk brought the crowd to its feet.
Johnson started his fourth game of the season – this time in place of Hackett – and scored seven points on 3-of-6 shooting. The Trojans smallest contributor, at 5-foot-11, also led the team with five rebounds. Washington out-rebounded USC, 42-28, and the Trojans struggled to defend yet another post player, as Jon Brockman scored 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting.
Gibson joked about putting lids back on the Galen Center rims, as USC did for one practice, after losing twice in Northern California last weekend. For the first time since Pac-10 play began, the Trojans could laugh off their struggles – whether they came in the paint, or on Mayo's hip.
During USC's late rally, Mayo contributed five consecutive points – with a drive, then a 3-pointer – that gave the Trojans their first double digit lead, 53-43, with 6:46 remaining. Later, he added a pair of free throws and a turnaround jumper off a long offensive rebound.
Despite missing his first six shots, Mayo managed four assists in the first half. He finished with five and shot 4-of-13 from the field.
"He just had poise. He just slowed the game down," Gibson said. "We talked in the huddles. He just said, 'We're going to slow it down. I'm going to slow down, try to get everybody involved.'
"That's what he did. He distributed the ball and waited for the right moment to shoot, and just took his time."
Dwight Lewis led USC with 17 points.
Noted: Floyd said Johnson replaced Hackett in the starting lineup because of "matchups." Said Hackett, "I love it. It's all about team and wins." … Freshman forward Davon Jefferson scored 10 points on 2-of-6 from the field and 6-of-6 from the foul line. Floyd suspended him for the Washington State game, citing a need for "growth." Floyd was largely complimentary of Jefferson's performance but noted that the freshman grabbed only three rebounds. "He's too good an athlete; he ought to be getting more boards than that," the coach said.
Make sure to check out reporter Jonathan Kay's live blog from every home USC basketball game on the TroyHoops.com basketball message board.