LOS ANGELES -- Give USC defensive specialist Marcus Simmons five assignments and ask him to complete them in order, Trojans coach Kevin O'Neill said Friday, and he won't be able to do them.
But give him one -- only one -- assignment and ask him to complete it exhaustively, and he'll produce the type of performance he did Friday at the Galen Center, holding Washington State guard Klay Thompson to 6-for-18 shooting and sparking the Trojans to a key 60-56 victory over the visiting Cougars in what players termed a "must-win" game after an overtime loss to Washington on Wednesday.
Afterward, O'Neill said Simmons was as good defensively as any player in college basketball. He also had high praise for the rest of his team for sticking with Wazzu late.
"I'm really proud of the way our team bounced back from a disappointing loss," O'Neill said. "I'm happy to win and beat a quality team."
Thompson, who entered the game 10th in the nation in scoring, finished with 17 points, but he never got into a real rhythm. Most of his points came on broken plays and he made only two shots inside the 3-point line. His 12 misses were the most he had this season.
He played a solid all-around game, collecting 10 rebounds and two blocks, but Wazzu clearly missed his scoring punch. It didn't quite look it, with Cougars forward DeAngelo Casto leading all scorers with 18 points, but Trojans big men Nikola Vucevic and Alex Stepheson were key to the USC victory. Both players recorded double-doubles and combined to hold down the middle defensively, allowing USC to really focus on perimeter defense. In turn, O'Neill's gameplan worked well, as Cougars guards Reggie Moore, Faisal Aden and Thompson were all held below their season averages.
"USC is a great defensive team and that really plays a role in it," Washington State coach Ken Bone said. "It's a really difficult game going gainst two of the best post players in the conference and it is hard to guard those two or go up against them being undersized."
The Trojans looked as if they had it sealed when they were up 13 points, 58-45, with three-plus minutes to go, but WSU put together a surprising 11-0 run to get within two points in the final seconds before Donte Smith sealed it with two free throws with 10 seconds left.
"We almost blew it with free throws," O'Neill said. "But we won it with free throws and rebounds."
Player of the game: Smith finished with 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting from 3-point range. He wasn't hot early, but he made them when they counted with three 3-pointers in a four-minute stretch in the second half.
Then, with 10 seconds left and USC up only two, he made the two huge free throws on a one-and-one to seal the game.
"Donte's become kind of a clutch guy for us," O'Neill said. "He has made some big shots for us obviously and he did again today.
"To make the free throws was really big."
Smith talked about the encouragement O'Neill offered him during breaks late in the game and showed signs he's beginning to get a green light at all times from his coach: "KO told me: 'Just shoot it, don't hesitate,' and that's what I did. I knew I had to come up big for us to get this win."
Stat of the game: With three made free throws Friday, Vucevic has now converted 19 consecutive free throws. He made his final two against Lehigh and 14 against Washington to start the streak.
Vucevic also leads the Pac-10 with nine double-doubles on the season after a 12-point, 11-rebound game Friday.
Quote of the game: "We were down. We came to practice a little sad. It was like a funeral. It was down. But we knew we had to bounce back." -- Smith on Thursday's practice after the overtime loss to Washington.
O'Neill said he didn't put his players through much physically on Thursday fter the taxing loss to Washington, gambling that they would come together mentally in time to beat the Cougars.
They did, and now USC will be able to rest up with a nine-day break until its next game against UCLA next Sunday, Jan. 9.
Notes: After the game, USC received an oral commitment from Class of 2012 guard Katin Reinhardt of Santa Ana Mater Dei. Reinhardt had been at practice earlier this week and visited with assistant Dieter Horton after Friday's game. He's averaging 17.5 points per game as a junior. ... USC had lost 11 of its previous 15 times against Washington State, including both games last season. ... Fontan missed the front end of one-and-ones on two straight possessions before Smith made the free throws that sealed the game. Afterward, Fontan said he'd likely return to the Galen Center later Friday and shoot extra free throws on his own. "I'm gonna beat myself up about it, but luckily I've got Donte Smith on my team," he said.
Simmons talked afterward about the defensive process against a player like Thompson, how his offensive game rebounded a bit Friday and other topics.
He also channeled LeBron James and said the Trojans were readying to "take our talents" on the road in two weeks. It's good stuff -- see the video below: