Demar DeRozan led the Trojans with 19 points, Taj Gibson added 18, and Daniel Hackett logged 17 of his own to defeat the visiting Oregon Ducks 80-66.
With NCAA tournament aspirations officially out of reach, the Trojans looked to get a morale boost from a sweep of the Oregon schools going into the Pac-10 tournament. An NIT berth is still at stake, but it obviously lacks the luster of the true March Madness.
"I think it is important to be playing at the highest level possible going into the Pac-10 tournament," said Coach Tim Floyd. "The best way to gauge that would be a win on Saturday to complement tonight."
Oregon looked to take advantage of their quickness by coming out in a full court press which went back to a matchup 3-2 zone. Quick teams often do this to vary their defensive looks and disrupt a slower team from establishing an offensive rhythm.
This backfired as the Ducks found themselves slow in rotating to shooters and closing lanes for penetration. The first six USC points came within five feet of the rim and the Trojans were unaffected by the shape-shifting defensive looks.
"The different defenses we saw made it take a little longer to feel out the game," said Gibson. "But once we found a rhythm we made a lot of easy shots and found some holes in their defense."
The pace was of both teams on the offensive end was slow, but this was due to different reasons. The Trojans were simply waiting for a Duck to lose sight of their man for the best quality shot. As a result they had to be patient, but the time they ate off the shot clock was turning into easy buckets early.
The Ducks were limited in running opportunities as USC did a good job of getting back on defense quickly and keeping a guard at half court to stop the ball in transition.
But the Ducks would not be silenced forever as they buried a trio of three-balls. The sudden surge was a result of reoccurring problem for the Trojans that reared its ugly head…small, quick guards. Tajuan Porter of the Ducks presents problems for every team in the Pac-10, but his penetration and play-making abilities would be a big thorn in the Trojans side.
Taj Gibson was just as problematic for the Ducks as he had three dunks in the first twelve minutes of play. Gibson was the recipient of many nice passes from his teammates. They found him easily amidst the scrambling Ducks who were still trying to find people in their matchup zone.
Gibson getting easy looks filtered down to the rest of the team. This has rung true for the Trojans all season long, and tonight it helped them establish a rhythm both offensively and defensively. Suddenly the Trojans found themselves running in the open floor with a 12-point lead with five minutes remaining in the half.
"Taj is our anchor," said Floyd. "I thought he played like he was capable of doing tonight, he is one of the most consistent players I have seen in a while."
Donte Smith came off the bench to make a solid contribution as he wrangled Porter, the facilitator of the Ducks' offense, and knocked down a three that started the surprising run. But everyone joined in on the offensive onslaught as Dwight Lewis, Demar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic all scored within five feet of the basket in transition.
The 12-point lead was cut in half as quickly as it was built. The Trojans began to turn the ball over during the closing minutes of the half and the Ducks took advantage. The teams with killer instinct that advance to the later rounds of the tournament finish halves strong, but the Trojans have been known to blow some leads going into the locker room.
However, the Trojans managed to cling to a one-point lead at the end of the half, barely withstanding a Duck attack.
The Ducks sustained the momentum from their first half comeback and made their first two shots right out of the second half gates.
The pace the Ducks came out with would not last for long as the Trojans buckled down defensively forcing a flurry of Oregon turnovers and even a shot clock violation.
Shot clock violations can give a team defensive confidence because they can take pride in successfully defending their court for a full 35 seconds. This takes a tremendous amount of physical effort and is a testament to a team's endurance as well their ability to work as a unit defensively
"It is more important that we won the game defensively," said Floyd. "It always helps to knock down shots but playing good defense can lead to lots of good things, including easy opportunities on the offensive end."
The Ducks were scoreless for almost three minutes and the Trojans opened a six-point lead with 12:30 remaining in the game from their hard work at the defensive end.
Oregon forced the action too much in their effort to get back into the game. They took too many uncharacteristic shots that were outside of the flow of their offense and they paid for it. Before the Ducks could blink, USC had opened up a 13-point lead.
The Trojans' patience on the offensive end has doomed them in the past, but it slowly picked Oregon apart as USC chose spots wisely. It was surprising that the Ducks stuck with the matchup zone for so long because they left people wide open in their failure to rotate properly.
Despite the Ducks' defensive woes, they found themselves within striking distance with just over five minutes remaining. This is a familiar theme with the Trojans and it calls attention to the lack of a killer instinct.
The better teams do not let up once a big lead has been established, but the Trojans allow teams to hang around just within striking distance. This combined with the inability to finish games strongly has resulted in 11 losses by five points or less.
It was déjà vu tonight as the fans were forced to grip in their seats a little longer than they should have. Oregon continually found ways to stick around with good offensive rebounding, three-point shooting, and timely answers to Trojan buckets.
DeRozan came on late for the Trojans hitting key back-to-back shots including an incredible dunk in which he was forced to duck to avoid hitting his head on the rim. DeRozan has grown a considerable amount during conference play and has made a habit of coming on in the clutch.
"That's always been a part of my game," said DeRozan. "I saw early that the best players do what they have to in the clutch for their teams to win, so always try to come through in those moments."
DeRozan sparked a flurry of Trojan buckets that Oregon would never recover from as the Trojans went on to win by 14 points. The win looked convincing, but if one were to ask any fan in attendance, they will tell you it was a little nerve-wracking.