On the bench during an early timeout, USC assistant Chris Capko screamed at the team, “Wake Up!” The Trojans were playing with no energy, no enthusiasm and barely any buckets. They were soon down 16-7 to Akron.
They needed a spark.
It came in an unlikely form 14 minutes later. Forward Bennie Boatwright, who returned after missing two games because of a plantar wart, was ejected after earning a flagrant-2 foul with 81 seconds left in the first half. While being boxed out, the 6-foot-11 Boatwright put his forearm under the neck of 6-1 Akron guard Virshon Cotton and tossed him to the ground.
Following two free throws from Cotton, USC went on a 36-9 run spanning into the middle of the second half en route to an 84-53 win in its opener at the Diamond Head Classic tournament.
“He was a martyr for the team,” senior guard Elijah Stewart said of Boatwright. “He took that [flagrant foul] and ever since then set the tone. They was just trying to punch us in our mouth, play us like we was soft. We had to go show them that we ain’t no chumps. They ain’t about to bully ball us.”
Stewart was involved in an incident that resulted in double technical fouls early in the second half. He followed it with back-to-back three-pointers during a 20-2 run. The Trojans (7-4) continued to roll up bucket after bucket, scoring 55 points — their highest-scoring half of the season. Stewart led the way, scoring 15 of his game-high 20 points after the break. Chimezie Metu added 16 points and eight rebounds while Jonah Mathews returned from an ankle injury to score 13 points in 23 minutes.
More important, for this game and the future of this season, USC showed fire and intensity on the defensive end. Akron (6-3) managed only 20 points in the final 20 minutes.
The coaching staff had made defense a point of emphasis after the Trojans allowed an 87-point output by UC Santa Barbara and gave up 103 points to Princeton, but it wasn’t until the second half that the Trojans finally locked in.
“If you play poorly enough, long enough, eventually you get tired of it,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “I think our players got tired of playing below their capabilities.”
USC was the preseason No. 10 team, but lackluster effort on the defensive end combined with being short-handed because of injuries and absences left the Trojans 6-4 heading into the tournament. In the second half, they played with passion on both ends of the court. They held Akron to just 25% shooting in the second half and Daniel Utomi, the second-leading scorer in the Mid-American Conference, scoreless after he had 11 points in the first half.
“That’s how we should have been playing the whole year,” freshman Jordan Usher said. “This is the first full half we played how the Trojans were supposed to this year. Full defense. Everyone was talking, the energy never left.”
VS. MIDDLE TENNESSEE
When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. PST.
On the air: TV: ESPN 2.