Saturday, February 26, 2011
Basketball: USC 62, Arizona State 46
By Pedro Moura
LOS ANGELES -- It's a phrase that hasn't been used much around the USC basketball program this season.
But, for once on Saturday, it actually applied to the situation: That was easy.
The Trojans (17-12, 9-7 in the Pac-10) easily handled conference bottom-dweller Arizona State in a Saturday mid-afternoon tilt at the Galen Center, topping the Sun Devils, 62-46, on Senior Day behind 20 points and 10 rebounds from star forward Nikola Vucevic, 15 from senior Alex Stepheson and increasingly stout defense.
It has become a pattern in recent games. 20-plus points from Vucevic, double-digit scoring from another player or two, this time Stepheson and Donte Smith, and tight on-the-ball defense spearheaded by stopper Marcus Simmons -- just like coach Kevin O'Neill is drawing it up. And O'Neill has been very pleased.
"We got the job done," the second-year coach said after Saturday's game. "I just liked the way we played, tone-wise, for most of the game."
ASU opened the game up to a 5-0 lead, but the outcome was never again in doubt after that. By the mid-point of the first half, USC had taken a six-point lead. By halftime, the Trojans led by 20, 38-18. And in the second half they stretched the lead out to as many as 26 points before letting up some late to account for the 16-point margin. The Sun Devils were overmatched.
"It's the eyeball test," Arizona State coach Herb Sendek said. "When you look at them you see they have a team full of men. It's all really well put together and when they add in O'Neill to the mix with his coaching it becomes dangerous for other teams."
Player of the game: It's becoming a trend, but Vucevic was again clearly the best player on the court Saturday. He took the opportunity to go against a weak Sun Devils front line and ran with it, finishing with those 20 points on just 11 shot attempts -- including 3-for-3 shooting from 3-point range -- and adding 10 rebounds, which tied Stepheson for the game high.
ASU made for an interesting challenge for Vucevic. He spent quite a bit of the first half defending ASU's Trent Lockett -- a 6-4 shooting guard -- and, save for a few minutes, was guarded by players much, much smaller than him.
Stat of the game: For the second straight game, the Trojans held an opponent under five assists. Arizona had just two in Thursday's game, a fact that made Wildcats coach Sean Miller quite a bit upset and agitated in his postgame news conference.
Saturday, the Sun Devils had just four -- one from point guard Jamelle McMillan and one from Keala King, Ty Abbott and Carrick Felix. It's hard to get an offense going when only eight points come from passes, and that, in combination with USC's total of 15 turnovers over the weekend, has proven to limit opponents' shot attempts.
"SC is really difficult to score against, so that accounts for the low assists," Sendek said. "We just didn't get it done in any area of the game."
And the assists? While holding their opponents to a combined six, USC totaled 18.
Quote of the game: "If we get seven of eight, I'll be the happiest camper alive. That would be phenomenal if we could do that. But we gotta be cautious just to take it one game at a time. Our next game at Washington State's our biggest, then the next one after that's the biggest and then the conference tournament's the biggest. " -- Kevin O'Neill
After the UCLA loss in Westwood earlier this month that dropped the Trojans to 12-11 and 4-6 in the Pac-10, O'Neill said he had an eight-game plan for salvaging the Trojans' season. It's starting to look salvaged, alright. With wins against the Washington schools next weekend, the Trojans could really start to make a case for NCAA tournament qualification, assuming they hold their own in the first round of the Pac-10 tournament and pull of a slight upset over one of the top three teams in the second round.
For his part, Sendek said USC is "certainly good enough" to be in the NCAA tournament.
"The Pac-10 doesn't get enough credit," Sendek said. "And they aren't getting enough credit.'"
Notes: It was Senior Day at the Galen Center, with Stepheson, Simmons and Smith being honored pregame on the court alongside their family members and O'Neill. Walk-on James Dunleavy also was honored, with famous father Mike Dunleavy joining him. O'Neill took the mic after the festivities and thanked fans for their attendance. "We think we still have a lot of basketball left to play," O'Neill said. ... ASU senior forward Rihards Kuksiks, a noted USC killer in the past, sat out of the game because of an ankle injury. ... With Vucevic at the free-throw line during the first half, the three-quarters full student section began chanting, "One more year!" Vucevic, a junior, could decide to enter the NBA draft early, after this season, and bypass his senior year. He said after the game he has not yet given thought to the decision of whether to stay or go.
Vucevic talked to the media afterward about the student section's chants, why he feels the Trojans are playing better of late and a few other topics. See what he had to say: