USC starting to round into shape with win over Utah

LOS ANGELES — It’s hard to overstate what an important day Saturday was for the USC men’s basketball team.

First, Arizona lost a stunner to a previously rudderless Oregon team. Then, the Trojans put together one of their best all-around efforts of the season to knock one the Pac-12’s upstart programs, Utah, 71-56.

The combined results of the day moved USC from fifth to third in the conference standings. After the season-opening loss to Florida Gulf Coast seemed to end the Trojans’ March hopes before they could even truly begin, USC (13-5, 5-2 in Pac-12) is starting to give its fans reason to believe again.

No one has questioned the USC defense thus far this season, and the reasons why were on full display again on Saturday. After the Utes opened the game 7 for 11 from the floor, the Trojans limited them to 28% shooting the rest of the way.

Similarly, Utah grabbed seven of the first eight rebounds only for USC to finish the game with a 41-29 edge.

“We had some things to say at the first media timeout,” head coach Andy Enfield said dryly. “But it’s the intensity, the focus, the effort, the desire to hold homecourt advantage in a big game.”

What USC has been waiting to see is its offense match the level of play of the other side of the court. The Trojans have had some good games, but even those frequently feature long scoring droughts or sequences where the Trojans don’t seem to run a play and merely freestyle through possessions.

Saturday was different, though. Four Trojans scored in double digits. The ball moved quickly when possessed by the white jerseys, skipping around to rotate the Utah defense and free up opportunities for USC.

Nine of the 11 Trojans who played against the Utes recorded an assist, with Drew Peterson and Reese Dixon-Waters leading the way with four each. USC assisted on 18 of 29 field goals, and 12 out of 17 in the first half.

And the Trojans limited themselves to 10 turnovers, one coming on a shot-clock violation as USC declined to run up the score in the final seconds.

Enfield feels like USC turned a corner after a disappointing nine-assist performance in a New Year’s Day loss to Washington State, and has seen the Trojans approach team basketball with more focus since.

“That’s important to us, to play smart offensive basketball,” Enfield said. “We’ve learned from our mistakes and we just have to keep improving on it.”

Several assists were the type of connections that could energize the entire team, not to mention the Galen Center crowd in attendance. From a Peterson lob to Tre White for a transition dunk to Boogie Ellis dropping the ball off to Joshua Morgan for a dunk out of the pick-and-roll, USC produced the kind of statement plays that can give an offense momentum.

And after several successful pick-and-roll plays together on Thursday against Colorado, the Ellis-to-Morgan connection seems to be something USC can cultivate for the final two months of the season. Defenders have to respect Ellis’ ability to shoot — he was 3 for 6 on 3-point attempts Saturday — so the 6-foot-11 Morgan has plenty of room to attack the rim.

Ellis had nine assists this week with just one turnover, becoming USC’s most reliable playmaker as well as scorer.

“Just making an easy play, not trying to do too much,” Ellis said. “And being a step ahead, making sure I know where the guy’s going to be and then getting the ball to the open guys.”

With a road trip to Arizona and Arizona State looming next week, it’s a good time for USC to find its footing.

“Everybody contributed today,” Ellis said. “We’re excited, we got a big week ahead of us. We gotta go get this road sweep and we’re ready for it.”

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