The stands were noticeably empty Monday as the USC Men's Basketball Team faced off against Azusa Pacific University in its first exhibition game of the season. There seemed to be just as many people rooting for Azusa Pacific as there were for the Trojans and their cheers were quite audible.
The crowd's lack of energy was reflected in the Trojans at the beginning of the game, the starting lineup of Donte Smith PG, Dwight Lewis SG, Demar DeRozan SF, Taj Gibson PF, and Keith Wilkinson C, came out flat and a little too relaxed.
Despite this, the Trojans had a strangle-hold on the game from beginning to end that was ignited by their play in the open floor. The Trojans looked to establish the ball in the post early, with the first basket layed in by Gibson on a nice drop step to the basket. But the burst of energy that displayed their control of the game came on the fast break.
The Trojans gained energy off of a lob from Smith to DeRozan early in the first half and never looked back. Smith and DeRozan worked well together, despite the little amount of time they have had to learn each other's tendencies. It is a shame that Smith will be redshirting this year, as their chemistry was both fun to watch and shed light on good things to come.
"I felt good tonight, coach told me to push the ball and we hurt them on the run," Smith said. "I was happy I could connect with Demar because he knows how to finish on the break."
Smith displayed good ball control and a knack for directing the offense. The flow of the offense was much smoother when Smith was in the game, as was evident from the 12 assists he dished out, and DeRozan fed off of his calming presence, leading all scorers with 21 points. Easy baskets in transition also had the Trojans shooting an incredible 56 percent from the field.
The first half was fast paced and despite a few three-pointers that kept them in the game early, Azusa Pacific could not keep up with the Trojans in the open floor. The early threes were the signs of an initially shaky defense from the Trojans in which they had to settle into. Azusa Pacific was able to get off uncontested shots that were falling for them. However, the Trojans adjusted and began to lock onto their men defensively.
The increased intensity on defense, in combination with the domination of the boards, was the true difference in the first half allowing the Trojans to build a 16 point lead at halftime. This spark was largely due to the energy that Kasey Cunningham PF brought off of the bench. The Trojans went into the locker room having doubled up their opponent on the boards 28-16.
The second half had a different feel than the first. The Trojans began the half out of sync and Coach Tim Floyd took a timeout two minutes in. Just like in the first half, the Trojans got things going through their play in the open floor.
However, the big men went to work this half scoring 38 points in the paint. Specifically, Keith Wilkinson pitched in a couple outside jumpers and a rare tip slam. Gibson wiped the offensive boards clean, ending up with six offensive boards, and Cunningham maintained the high energy level from the first half. Mamadou Diarra was the only big man who looked disheveled in the offensive flow, but the energy and activity he brought to the paint was a boost nonetheless.
The only sore spot on the evening for the Trojans was their free throw shooting. They were only 18 of 34 from the line on the night for a dismal 53 percent.
Towards the end of the second half, the Trojans began to run away with the score. A couple of steals and open dunks late in the game from Cunningham and DeRozan signified the Trojans cruise to victory with a final score of 85-64.
Gibson added 19 points, and there were 5 Trojans in double figures.