Basketball is a game of match-ups and on paper No. 7 Stanford (24-6, 13-4) was a tough draw for the Trojans (20-10, 11-7) to close their regular season. Could the athleticism of O.J. Mayo and USC compete with the overwhelming size and skill of Cardinal players like Brook Lopez? A national television audience on CBS was anxious to find out.
As expected, one team dominated on the boards and points in the paint. Unexpectedly, that team was USC.
Leading for 39 of the 40 minutes, the Trojans bounced back from their season low 46 points in Palo Alto with a decisive 77-64 win in front of 9,427 at the Galen Center.
"It was a really good win for us," Coach Tim Floyd told the media after the game. "We didn't have a lot of time to prepare but our kids played hard and played inspired."
The Trojans remarkably out rebounded the much taller Cardinal 47-31, including 18-12 on the offensive end.
"We were able to get them on the boards which I could not have envisioned going into the game," Floyd said. "It is probably the most encouraging thing about our team right now, we were last in the league in rebounding forever and now I think we have out rebounded 5 or 6 teams in a row."
The Trojans enter the Pac-10 tournament with tremendous momentum after sweeping the Bay Area schools at home. They also reached the magical 20-win plateau and secured not only a berth to the NCAA tournament, but a decent seed as well.
The 11 AM tipoff did not seem to bother the Trojans as they exploded to an early 22-8 lead. USC made shot after shot and forced numerous turnovers with its press defense.
"Stanford is really a great half court team with the Lopez twins and Anthony Goods," O.J. Mayo said in the locker room. "We really wanted to try and speed up the tempo and get the game up and down."
The Cardinal looked hung-over after their controversial loss to the UCLA Bruins on Thursday night. Stanford missed easy shots in the paint and fumbled the basketball away thanks to the tenacious defense of USC.
"It was the first time we pressed all year long and our guys were able to get that into the game and speed the pace," Floyd said. "We wanted to play at a fast pace because they are so efficient in the half court game. "
At the midway point of the first half the Stanford players suddenly came to life. It was as if a hangover cure of Advil, a greasy burrito and a Bloody Mary finally took effect and the shocking collapse at Pauley Pavilion was forgotten. The Cardinal started hitting its shots and playing better defense, not allowing USC to get into their full-court pressure after made baskets.
Once Stanford snapped out of their funk the rest of the half was a back and forth battle. Ironically it was the Trojans who controlled the lane in the first half, outscoring Stanford 22-10 in the paint.
Taj Gibson and Dwight Lewis each had 12 points by the break, while Mayo chipped in 9. Gibson did his damage inside, shooting 5-9 against the much taller Stanford defenders.
The second half continued just as the first ended, with mini runs on both sides keeping the Trojan lead fluctuating between 4 and 9 points.
Then with a little over ten minutes left in the game the Trojans got a spark. On the defensive end Stanford missed what seemed like 10 shots in the paint, their overpowering size allowing them to get offensive rebound after offensive rebound.
Mayo finally cleared the boards and started a fast break the other way. He found Davon Jefferson with a perfect 25-foot ally-oop pass that Jefferson finished with authority. The crowd came to life and after a subsequent Mayo jumper USC had its biggest lead of the night at 58-45.
From that point on the Trojans were in control, holding a double-digit lead for the majority of the remainder of the game.
There was one Cal-like moment with three and a half minutes left however. Stanford cut the lead from 15 to 9 points in just 30 seconds, but USC circled the wagons, made some foul shots and put the game away.
Mayo finished with a game high 25 points and had 8 rebounds. Gibson secured a double-double with 20 points and 11 boards and even had 5 blocks. Lewis and Jefferson added 14 and 11 points respectively.
The Trojans start Pac-10 tournament play on Thursday with their opponent still to be determined. If Washington State beats Washington USC will have the No. 4 seed. If the Huskies upset the Cougars USC moves up to the No. 3 seed.
USC honored 1947 graduate Tex Winter at halftime.
Jefferson hit an early three but got into foul trouble. He left the game with 5 minutes left in the first half after he picked up his 3rd foul.
Daniel Hackett had to sit down with 13 minutes left in the game with his 4th personal foul. He later fouled out at the 3:30 mark.
With 1:40 left in the game and Mayo going to the line, students began chanting, "One more year. One more year." After the game Coach Floyd said he hasn't talked to Mayo much about coming back, wanting his star player to focus on the task at hand and not the future.
Shooting percentage: USC 46.7% Stanford 32.3%.
Points in the paint: USC 38, Stanford 22.
Stanford's bench outscored USC's 31-5.