USC forward Alex Stepheson practiced Thursday without the brace he had been sporting on his left hand since mid-November, a good sign for the Trojans in advance of Sunday's home game against crosstown rival UCLA.
Stepheson, a senior averaging 10 points, had fractured his hand in USC's season opener Nov. 13 but continued to play in the Trojans' next 14 games and was clearly affected by it.
"He got the go-ahead," coach Kevin O'Neill said after practice Thursday. "It's off. I'm sure he's relieved."
He had originally expected to cease wearing the brace two to three weeks after he suffered the injury, but that date kept getting pushed back. Wednesday, he met with the team doctor on the team's off day and was cleared to practice without it. He performed well in practice Thursday and is readying to defend UCLA center Josh Smith on Sunday.
"It was a little different," Stepheson said of playing with his left hand free after nine weeks of the brace. "But it feels better, and it was definitely easier to play without the cast on than anything, so I'm just excited that I'm able to play with a free left hand right now."
As he has many times this season, O'Neill emphasized he was proud of Stepheson for continuing to suit up despite the injury. O'Neill had said before the season that the Trojans would essentially be done if one of the team's two big men -- Stepheson or Nikola Vucevic -- went down with an injury, so when the injury was announced shortly after the start of the season, things seemed bleak for USC.
"I appreciate what he did, playing 15 games with that thing on when he could have easily sat out seven or eight," O'Neill said. "Let's face it, the first seven or eight he was ineffective in terms of catching and doing all that kind of stuff."