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Much like his team, USC's Bennie Boatwright has had an uneven season

Much like his team, USC's Bennie Boatwright has had an uneven season
USC forward Bennie Boatwright slips as he drives to the basket during a game against UCLA on Feb. 3. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images)

He missed his first three shots, then watched four straight fall.

Finally, it appeared, after spending several weeks slowed and sidelined because of a nagging foot injury, USC's Bennie Boatwright had returned to form.

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"I just need one to go in," Boatwright said. "I just need to see it once and then it's over."

But as quickly as Boatwright found his rhythm, scoring 18 points in a loss at Arizona State, the 6-foot-10 junior forward fell out of sync two nights later.

As USC failed to keep pace in a loss at Arizona, Boatwright managed only seven shots and scored seven points.

The up-and-down performances reflected his season.

"It's been tough," Boatwright said.

At the center of his difficulties is a foot injury that coaches had previously described as a blister, when in fact it was a callus that became infected on the ball of his right foot.

"It was like a big blood blister," Boatwright said. "Then they had to drain it and they had to dig deep inside there.

"It was really bad."

The injury sidelined and slowed Boatwright during the second half of the nonconference schedule, then sidelined him again during victories over Stanford and California.

"He's had a challenging season with his injuries," Trojans coach Andy Enfield said. "Any time you are not at your best it's hard mentally and, of course, physically."

And it's forced USC to play without one of its leading scorers.

"When he's healthy he brings it every day," junior forward Chimezie Metu said. "We know we can always count on him."

Boatwright averaged 15.1 points and 4.5 rebounds a game last season, and after making a splash in the NCAA tournament, he entered the NBA draft. He maintained his NCAA eligibility by not hiring an agent and eventually withdrew his name and announced he would return to USC.

"I just talked with my dad and felt like we could make a run in the tournament and in the Pac-12," said Boatwright, who only played in 19 games last season because of a knee sprain. "I felt like it would be better for me to get stronger and to get better."

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Following Boatwright's return, and those of several key teammates, USC was picked among the preseason top 10.

But as the Trojans return to Galen Center this week to play Oregon and Oregon State, a run in March remains uncertain, with a lot riding on Boatwright's ability to perform.

After losing three straight, USC (17-9, 8-5 Pac-12) is tied for second and is one of four five-loss teams in the conference.

"Our ceiling as a team is at its highest when Bennie Boatwright and everybody else is healthy," Enfield said.

Enfield was cautious not to credit any single player for wins or losses, but acknowledged that with De'Anthony Melton sidelined for the season because of eligibility concerns, Boatwright's ability to contribute was crucial.

"We need him to perform at a high level for us to be good," Enfield said.

Boatwright is averaging 14.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and two assists per game. He is shooting 42% from the field, just off the 42.8% mark of his sophomore season.

His injury sidelined him during a victory over Santa Barbara and an overtime loss to Princeton. Boatwright returned for the three remaining nonconference games and played in eight Pac-12 games before he could no longer bear the pain.

"I couldn't walk on it," Boatwright said, adding that the injury flared when he scored 33 points in a win over New Mexico State in December. "That's when it really started hurting bad but I was playing on it since then."

The situation came to a head after a victory at Oregon in which Boatwright scored 18. He was sidelined the second half of a win at Oregon State, then sat against Stanford and California.

The Trojans went 3-1 in games without Boatwright, but missed the opportunity to build chemistry with their go-to shooter.

He attempted a comeback against UCLA but scored only two points in nine minutes on 0-for-5 shooting.

"We played him and gave him some minutes and he tried his best," Enfield said. "He wasn't in shape and his timing was off."

Boatwright stayed after practice to shoot and work on his conditioning before the Trojans' trip to the desert.

After making six of 14 shots (including four three-pointers) at Arizona State, Boatwright regained his confidence. He said the Trojans still have time to prove they can win the conference and earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

"During this homestretch in the Pac-12," he said, "I feel like we are going to hit our stride."

Follow Lindsey Thiry on Facebook and Twitter @LindseyThiry

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