After playing at times this season like a team lacking confidence, USC had its most complete game yet with a 96-73 victory over Houston Wednesday night before 2,277 at the Sports Arena.
Coming off an embarrassing loss at Loyola Marymount on Monday, the Trojans played like a team determined to erase its own doubts from the tipoff.
With Stais Boseman (20 points and three steals) and Brandon Martin (19 points) leading the way, USC scored its most points of the season against a team many considered its toughest opponent to date.
"This game was a test of our character," said USC Coach Charlie Parker, whose team improved to 3-1. "This was as important a game of any we will play this year."
USC's big men, juniors Avondre Jones and David Crouse, and freshman Maurice Strong easily played their best game as a unit against the Cougars. Jones and Strong had career highs with 21 and 13 points, respectively. In 15 minutes, Crouse had six points and a career-high five blocked shots.
In their 86-83 loss at Loyola, the Trojans were outscored, 13-0, in the final 2:08 after turning the ball over twice, missing the first of two one-and-one free throws and missing two off-balanced shot attempts by Cameron Murray and Boseman.
Against Houston (2-3), however, the Trojans established themselves quickly.
In an early eight-minute span, USC turned a 10-6 deficit into a 29-13 lead with balanced team play behind Murray's game-high five assists. With Jones, Crouse and Strong combining for 14 points and eight blocked shots, USC's transition game found its gear in shooting 51.4% from the floor to take a 44-33 halftime lead.
"We didn't want to string our losses together," said Martin, who made two of three three-point attempts. "We know that we have to learn for our mistakes and that we did do some good things Loyola on Monday. This was our best all-around game as a team. It definitely was our best offensive game."
Boseman led the way with 17 first half points, giving him 38 points over the last two halves for the Trojans, including 21 points in the second half against Loyola.
USC started the second half even more aggressively.
With Martin scoring eight quick points and Jones making five free throws, the Trojans took a commanding 62-42 lead with 14:03 remaining and had Houston over the limit with seven fouls five minutes into the half.
After being outrebounded by Loyola, 52-28, including a 22-4 edge for the Lions in offensive rebounds, the Trojans did a little better against Houston, losing the battle, 46-36, with Jones and Strong grabbing seven apiece.
Kenya Capers led Houston with 23 points and nine rebounds with Kirk Ford adding 16 and 11.