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Friday, February 11, 2011
Basketball: USC 67, Oregon State 56

By Pedro Moura

LOS ANGELES -- Five minutes in to Thursday's USC-Oregon State matchup at the Galen Center, the Beavers were ahead by five, 11-6, by virtue of a relatively quick start and an ultra-slow start from the Trojans.

At that point, it looked a lot like last month's USC-Oregon State game, when the Beavers opened up to a 10-point lead at the break and never let up on their way to an 80-76 win.

But Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill immediately called a timeout after Omari Johnson converted an easy layup after a Marcus Simmons missed layup. O'Neill stared at his team in front of his bench and had only one thing to say, he later said, before ushering them back out onto the court: "Could you get down and guard your man, please?"

The Trojans guarded their men just fine after that, going on an immediate 12-0 run and closing out the first half on a 31-12 run. USC (13-11, 5-6 in the Pac-10) finished off its first win over the Beavers (9-14, 4-8) in its last four tries with a comfortable 67-56 win.

"It was like we couldn't believe that we actually got off to a good start tonight," Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said afterward. "And then we let it slip away. We played tentative and then we didn't get aggressive until we were behind and it was too late at tht point."

O'Neill said in his postgame press conference that the outcome was "interesting." That's a good way to put it. USC essentially re-learned Thursday that it can win without playing particularly well on offense or defense.

The Trojans and Beavers came out close to even on two key statistical categories -- field goal percentage (OSU shot 40 percent, USC 39) and rebounds (both teams had 32) -- but USC managed to beat Oregon State at its own game, sort of. USC forced the Beavers into 19 turnovers and limited itself to 14.

A telling stat? Points off turnovers: USC had 28, Oregon State 14. The Trojans played great "turnover defense" -- as O'Neill calls it -- Thursday.

Player of the game: Jio Fontan didn't score much, but he was efficient and effective at the point guard spot in his 31 minutes of play, with nine points on just five field-goal attempts and four assists with only two turnovers -- and did all that while being pressured pretty much every trip down the floor by the Beavers' 1-3-1 zone defense.

"Jio did a really good job taking care of the ball," said Nikola Vucevic, who had a game-high 17 points. "He had a couple turnovers, but you have to against that type of defense.

"He really made a couple big plays that we needed down the stretch."

One thing's clear: Fontan's a different player when playing point. He's confident in his ball-handling abilities, it's clear, and a calming influence in times of duress on the floor. He also hit two 3-pointers -- one in each half -- to give the Trojans a perimeter boost.

"I feel like my team benefits more when I'm aggressive," Fontan said. "Not too much my stats, my numbers, how much I score or how many shots I take, but just me being aggressive and me being active."

Stat of the game: The Beavers nearly set their season-low for points until a final-minute layup put them into familiar territory with 56 points OSU had 80 points against the Trojans last month, their fourth-highest scoring total of the year.

"I'm really satisfied with the way we played on defense," Vucevic said. "That's what we needed to do to get this win."

Quote of the game: "All that talk of an eight-game season goes right down the drain if you lose." -- O'Neill

The eight-game season O'Neill refers to is simply what was left for the Trojans this season. At 12-11 on the season entering into Thursday, they had to win at least six of their remaining eight contests to have even a prayer of earning an NCAA tournament appearance.

It's a seven-game season, now -- beginning with Oregon at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday. Vucevic said it will be a definite must-win for the Trojans.

Notes: Oregon State's 19 turnovers were a season-high for a USC opponent...OSU leading scorer Jared Cunningham attempted double-digit free throws for the second-straight game against the Trojans. He converted 9-of-10 Thursday after making 10-of-14 last month in Corvallis...Oregon State came in leading the nation in steals at 10.1 per game but fell just short of that number with nine.

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See what Fontan had to say postgame about the win, including his compare-and-contrast between last month's loss in Corvallis and this victory: