Behind USC's streakiness? A green light that never turns yellow

When USC’s coaching staff was rehashing its last-minute victory over Southern Methodist on Friday night, assistant coach Tony Bland turned to Coach Andy Enfield and started laughing. Bland was recounting the game-winning play from earlier in the day, a three-pointer from the corner by Elijah Stewart.

“You had a guy that did not score at all in the Providence game,” Bland said, incredulous, “and Coach Enfield drew up the game-winning shot for him.”

Throughout the season, USC has been defined by streaks. The volatility has only intensified during the tournament.

“It’s amazing how streaky we are, for the good and for the bad,” Enfield marveled on Saturday.

Stewart’s shot, Bland said, demonstrated how Enfield has both fostered that streakiness and harnessed it for two NCAA tournament wins.

“Andy Enfield gives every guy on the team confidence to shoot and play their game,” Bland said. “Even guys,” Bland continued, laughing, “in my opinion that should not be shooting the ball.”

Enfield does not tell players to stop shooting, Bland said. Part of the assistant coaches’ responsibilities during the pregame speech is to remind players to shoot and not think twice.

The forever-green-light approach has paid off during the tournament. It also almost kept the Trojans from reaching it. Needing another top win to cement a bid, they shot just 28% on three-pointers against Oregon, UCLA and Arizona late in the season. They lost all three games.

Throughout his tenure after such losses, Enfield almost always remarks that USC was taking smart three-pointers. They just didn’t go in. The question always remained: If the three-pointers weren’t going in, why keep taking so many of them? Why not pound the ball into the paint?

One reason is that Enfield values confidence with a young team. And his method of keeping a shooter’s confidence high is to never waver in his own faith. Often, he has his deputies give out reminders.

Early in the game on Friday, after Stewart passed up a wide-open three-pointer, Bland nearly pulled him off the floor.

“I almost went to half-court to tell him, ‘If you pass up another shot, you’re going to be sitting next to us,’” Bland said.

At each timeout, Bland said he told Stewart, “Hey, you haven’t shot in a while.”

“Every timeout,” Bland said. “There was a point where he just missed two, and I was like, ‘Elijah, you haven't had a shot in a while.’

The message stuck. By the final minute, as he was preparing to take the game-winning shot, a Stewart unlike one coaches had seen often before emerged. Stewart said he decided to take the shot no matter what, even if a defender had him blanketed.

“The play was drawn up for me, and I'm not going to miss it,” he said.

Later that evening, among the coaches, Bland joked with Enfield.

“I said, ‘Elijah had the biggest confidence on the team to make the shot,’” Bland said. “‘Only Coach trumped him for drawing a play for Elijah.'"

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°