Trojans finally get end result they want
Happy endings for USC at the Galen Center had occurred only when the outcome had been decided before the final seconds.
Games that came down to last-second shots? Not so much.
So when Oregon’s Aaron Brooks, one of the best clutch players in the country, came off a screen that freed him from Gabe Pruitt, pump-faked Taj Gibson into the air and then pulled up for an open three-point attempt just before the buzzer Saturday afternoon ... well, the Trojans didn’t like their chances.
“I’ve seen him make a lot of big shots,” Pruitt said. “I was just there hoping that [his shot] wouldn’t fall.”
But the only thing that fell this time was ninth-ranked Oregon. Brooks’ shot glanced off the side of the rim and the Trojans held on for a pulsating 71-68 victory in front of 8,119.
The result was a welcome change for a USC team that earlier had suffered a couple of excruciating Pacific 10 Conference defeats on late baskets at the Galen Center -- a short runner by Washington State’s Kyle Weaver on Dec. 30 and a mid-range pull-up jumper by UCLA’s Arron Afflalo on Jan. 13, both with about four seconds to play.
Saturday’s victory, their fifth over a ranked opponent, moved the Trojans (18-6 overall, 8-3 Pac-10) into a tie with Washington State for second place in the conference standings, one game behind UCLA. USC plays the Bruins on Wednesday night at Pauley Pavilion.
“By Wednesday, we can be in first place,” USC senior guard Lodrick Stewart said.
After the Trojans secured their first season sweep of Oregon since the 2000-01 season, USC students remained in their seats and players brought the celebration to them. Gibson gleefully bounded toward the student section and pointed with both arms in appreciation, while freshman guard Dwight Lewis slapped hands with students who sat in the front row.
“The atmosphere, to me, is second to none in this conference,” Coach Tim Floyd said after USC surpassed last season’s victory total and took another big step toward earning an NCAA tournament bid. “We would have lost this game today at the Sports Arena a year ago because we would not have had the home-court advantage late, which I thought we did have.”
The fans were roaring early, when USC scored on nine of its first 13 possessions to take a 10-point lead, and late, when the Trojans needed their support to help turn back the Ducks (19-4, 7-4), who have dropped consecutive games for the first time this season, and lost three of four.
Gibson finished with 18 points, four blocks and three rebounds for USC, which shot 60% to Oregon’s 33.3% but was outrebounded, 41-20. Junior swingman Nick Young had 13 points and Pruitt added 12 for the Trojans.
After Gibson made one of two free throws to give the Trojans a 71-68 lead with 16 seconds left, the Ducks raced down the court and junior guard Chamberlain Oguchi hoisted a three-pointer that missed. But Brooks grabbed the rebound -- his game-high ninth -- and immediately signaled for a timeout with 4.6 seconds to go.
Oregon then got the shot it wanted from the player it wanted when forward Maarty Leunen set a screen to free Brooks from Pruitt. But Brooks, who was slightly off balance when the ball left his fingertips, couldn’t convert.
“We guarded really hard for 3 1/2 of the 4 1/2 seconds,” Floyd said. “I think he was so open he couldn’t believe it and probably missed it as a result.”
Less than a month after blistering the Trojans for 31 points in Eugene, Ore., Brooks finished with 16 points on five-for-14 shooting, making only two of seven shots from behind the three-point arc.
“Gabe did a great job on him,” Young said. “He was pressuring him the whole game and he kind of corrupted him.”
Said Pruitt: “When he has the ball in his hands he can make a lot of things happen, so my whole focus was to limit his touches.”
Even when Brooks got the ball at the end, that worked out all right for the Trojans too.