LOS ANGELES -- It comes hand in hand with the tournament season every March: the air of desperation.
USC felt that rarefied air all too quickly in the Trojans' Pac-10 opener Thursday at Staples Center, falling behind Cal by eight points about eight minutes into the first half when nothing was falling and defense was suddenly hard to come by. But a set play out of a timeout led to a Donte Smith 3-pointer, and just as suddenly as they fell behind, the Trojans were back in front again, taking an eight-point lead at halftime after a 18-4 run.
It held up in the second half and USC moved on to a semifinal matchup with No. 16 Arizona with a commanding 70-56 win over the Bears.
“We played with a sense of desperation, I thought,” USC coach Kevin O'Neill said afterward. "And nothing’s more desperate than being 10 minutes in and having only three points.
“The one message we always try to send to our guys and they send to each other is that we are going to guard you. I think our guys really took it to them defensively because our mentality was we're desperate here. We've got to do something well, and it became the defensive end for us.”
On a day in which USC star Nikola Vucevic was clearly off his game -- the junior forward had seven points on 10 shot attempts -- it was USC's three guards who made the difference. Donte Smith, Jio Fontan and Maurice Jones combined for 42 points and 10 assists as they collectively sliced and diced their ways through the Bears' big men. Fontan hadn't had much success against Cal in the team's previous two meetings; Smith did in the first game; Jones did in the second.
All three did Thursday, and constant penetration was key.
“We really had trouble keeping their quick guards in front of us,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “Especially in the second half, once they started to get to the basket, they were dropping for scores or kicking for threes.
“Smith and Jones, the two guys that one hurt us here, one hurt us at our place, and they both hurt us tonight.”
Cal (17-14) did get as close as a 10-point margin, 59-49, with seven minutes to go, but USC responded directly to that with a Nikola Vucevic layup and five straight points. The Trojans did that each time the Bears got close the rest of the night.
“They just kept capitalizing,” said Cal’s Allen Crabbe, who led all scorers with 21 points. “Every time we made a run, it seems like they had something for it. So couldn't really get into the groove of the game.”
Player of the game: USC's Jones was the facilitator and the creator Thursday, dishing off to his teammates and finding shots for himself, too. It was his best game since the last time the Trojans played Cal in the Bay Area last month.
His final line was 16 points and four assists in 31 minutes. He shot 6-of-11 from the field, including 2-of-4 from 3-point range, and did just about everything well after he entered the game off the bench with USC scoreless five minutes into the game.,
“It makes things a whole lot easier on the offensive end," USC forward Alex Stepheson said of Jones' success. "He gets in there, makes easy layups, finds me for dunks, finds Donte for threes. He just makes things so much easier, and then we feed off of that on the defensive end."
It wasn't only Stepheson and Smith benefitting from Jones' penetration, too. The rest of the offense was truly flowing through him, and it was working well -- especially in a second half that saw the Trojans shoot 50 percent from the field.
“Whenever he’s going like that, it opens up things for me," said Fontan. "When Mo’s on the court, he’s putting me in positions where, once I make the initial pass to him, he does the first drive and I get it back, I’m usually in a one-on-one situation and I’ve got my guy on an island instead of sitting back waiting for Jio to penetrate and create something. Whenever he’s playing like that, we’re a deadly team to guard.
Stat of the game: USC had six players with seven or more points.
So, while Vucevic "wasn't getting it done tonight," as Smith said, the rest of his teammates were. Defensive stopper Marcus Simmons had seven points -- including a key buzzer-beating 3-pointer at the end of the first half -- and Stepheson had an efficient 14 points.
Smith had 14 points on four 3-pointers and Fontan added 12. Freshman Garrett Jackson, USC's seventh player, didn't score a lick, but the six big-time contributors were enough to top the Bears.
It was only the third time since the Trojans began conference play that they had six scorers with seven or more and only the second time they had four players in double figures.
Quote of the game: “KO called timeout and told us to pick it up. But we'd been there before. We were a veteran team. We knew that we were going to come back. It was still early in the game. We were still confident and knew that everything was going to be okay." -- Stepheson
Stepheson, Smith and O'Neill all sat together while speaking to the media after the game, and the three had quite a bit of interesting interaction, like Smith interrupting O'Neill mid-sentence to correct him on USC's record with Smith starting. The best was this one, though. After Stepheson's comment about how he and his teammates felt confident early on they'd be able to secure the comeback, O'Neill looked over at his senior with incredulity.
“Why didn't you tell me?" he asked Stepheson. "I wasn't really feeling like it was going to be.”
Notes: USC will face top-seeded Arizona at 6:10 p.m. in the semifinals of the Pac-10 tournament Friday at Staples Center. The Wildcats beat Oregon State, 78-69, after USC's game Thursday. ... Said Simmons of his reaction following the buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the first he'd hit in a game since Jan. 20: "I had to act like I’d been there before.” He made a beeline for the locker room despite his teammates' attempts to congratulate him for the shot that gave the Trojans the eight-point halftime lead. ... Jackson's four minutes played were , his lowest total in more than two months.
Jones talked afterward about his own game, how USC started off badly and the challenges in going against Arizona in little more than 24 hours: