The Trojans and Sun Devils split the basketball regular season series, each winning by 14 points on their home floor. On Thursday at Staples Center the two schools met for a rubber match in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 round of the Pac-10 Tournament. It wasn't the prettiest effort, but O.J. Mayo and the Trojans did enough to advance to the semifinals once again.
Head Coach Tim Floyd thinks extremely highly of Arizona State's 2-3 zone defense and for good reason. The Sun Devils packed the lane and forced the Trojans to work extremely hard to get any penetration for easy baskets.
But in the end it was the defense of USC that made the difference, holding ASU without a field goal for the final 9 minutes and 35 seconds en route to a 59-55 victory.
"I think we are very fortunate to get out of there (with a win)," Floyd said after the game. "They dictate the tempo with their defense and their zone is the best zone in the country. I was real proud of our win and proud of our guys."
Mayo put in a Herculean effort, shooting 8 of 17 from the field for a game high 23 points, 6 assists, two steals, two boards and a block. His only stat-line blemish being five turnovers against the Sun Devil zone defense.
Forward Taj Gibson was very active, shooting 5 of 8 from the floor for 11 points.
"These two guys down the stretch are playing as well as anybody in the country in my opinion," Floyd said about Mayo and Gibson.
Keeping the Trojans alive was their active play on the boards. USC held a rebounding edge of 36-26 and did not allow ASU a 2nd chance point all game long.
"I thought Davon Jefferson had a great second half with 9 boards and Taj had 9 boards and that is still the biggest key to why we are playing better," Floyd said. "We were last in the league in rebounding and we have now outrebounded 7-straight opponents. Those two guys getting nine boards is as big as any stat in the game."
The Sun Devils came out on fire, hitting four early three-point shots and extending their lead to 17-9 in the first half. But the Trojans answered with a 10-0 run during which they settled down defensively.
"Daniel Hackett did a great job on (James) Harden," Floyd said about the USC defense. "They kept running everything through Harden. Taj did a great job of helping out on the screen and rolls. Jefferson did a great job when he chose to start switching the screen and rolls."
The original play was to have Mayo guarding Harden all game long. But after picking up a quick foul less than a minute into the game, Floyd changed his strategy.
"We just didn't feel comfortable with him not being on the floor offensively," Floyd said.
Both teams battled back and forth until the 5-minute mark when the Trojans finally got the spark they needed.
Jefferson muscled up and fought for an offensive rebound, finding himself 15 feet from the basket and trapped by the ASU defense. He made an aggressive move and drove the baseline, sinking an acrobatic shot as he was being fouled by Harden.
The three-point play not only put the Trojans up 56-53 with 5 minutes left, it was also Harden's 4th foul.
After spending most of the game letting the Sun Devils dictate play, this was the first moment that the Trojans asserted themselves and took control.
That play proved to be the difference maker, especially considering that neither team made a field goal from that point on, though the Sun Devils did come close.
With just over 16 seconds left on the clock and the Trojans up by a bucket, Jeff Pendergraph appeared to sky high for an offensive rebound, slamming it home to tie the game. The officials blew the whistle, declaring an offensive foul that sent Jefferson to the line and Pendergraph to the bench with his 5th foul.
After the major foul discrepancy against his team on their last trip to Tempe, Floyd must have felt vindicated with this questionable call.
"I couldn't see it from my bench," Floyd told the media after the game. "I saw him dunk it and I didn't like that. I am sure if I was sitting on the other bench I wouldn't have liked (the foul call). From my bench I liked it."
USC plays the winner of the UCLA/Cal game at 6 PM on Friday at Staples Center.
Somehow the Trojans outscored the Sun Devils in the paint 22-20.
ASU shot 40% in the first half and just 28.6% in the 2nd half.
No fast break points for either team.
Turnovers were a problem, 19 for USC and 12 for ASU. ASU 24 points off turnovers, USC 15.
Angelo Johnson was 0-3 from the floor with one assist and one rebound in 20 minutes.
Mayo's 6 assists ties his career best. It was the 18th time he scored at least 20 points.
With 649 points, Mayo has the 4th best single season in USC history.
Best stretch? With 63 wins this is the best 3-year run in school history.
James Harden had shot 15 of 17 against USC before going 6-13 in the Pac-10 Tournament.