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USC is a bracket duster

Times Staff Writer

They’re no longer mere bracket busters, a ragtag group defying expectations with heart and hustle.

These USC Trojans now require a different description: one of the best college basketball teams in the country.

It’s hard to argue otherwise after the fifth-seeded Trojans emerged with a surprisingly easy 87-68 victory over fourth-seeded Texas on Sunday afternoon at Spokane Arena in an NCAA tournament East Regional second-round game.

“New Jersey, New Jersey, never been there,” a giddy Nick Young said after scoring 22 points to help the Trojans advance to their first Sweet 16 since 2001. “Excited about that.”

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USC (25-11) will play top-seeded North Carolina (30-6) about 6:45 p.m. PDT Friday in a regional semifinal at East Rutherford, N.J.

The Trojans will need assistant coach Phil Johnson to concoct another masterful defensive scheme against the Tar Heels after he devised a winning formula against Texas and freshman phenom Kevin Durant.

Hounded nearly the entire game by Daniel Hackett and Dwight Lewis, two freshman guards who gave up four inches to their counterpart, the 6-foot-9 Durant scored most of his game-high 30 points after the Trojans had already built a double-digit first-half lead.

“They did a great job of fronting me while I’m in the post and helping on the back side,” Durant said. “So I got the ball on the wing, tried to get to the basket and pulled up for some shots in my midrange game and tried to get fouled.”

Durant failed on both counts, making only two of nine three-point shots and attempting only eight free throws. He made 11 of 24 shots overall.

USC guard Gabe Pruitt held Texas freshman guard D.J. Augustin to six points on one-for-eight shooting, leaving Durant and sophomore guard A.J. Abrams (20 points) to carry the scoring load.

“You’re not going to get it done this time of year with just two guys doing it,” Longhorns Coach Rick Barnes said.

USC received big contributions from all five starters. Each scored in double figures, with Hackett getting a career-high 20 points and freshman forward Taj Gibson finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds despite playing most of the second half with a badly bruised jaw.

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And Pruitt had a strong all-around game (10 points, eight assists, six rebounds, two steals), plus a big slice of redemption.

“I like messing up people’s brackets,” Pruitt said. “I know people have us picked not to win, and it feels good when people call me and say, ‘Oh, man, you guys messed up our bracket.’ That feels good to me.”

The Trojans built a 24-13 lead midway through the first half behind a flurry of four three-pointers and extended the advantage to as many as 15 points before Durant finally got going by making a three-pointer and a baseline floater, helping Texas slice the deficit to seven by halftime.

A Durant free throw and a layup by freshman guard Justin Mason to start the second half got Texas (25-10) to within 34-30.

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But then USC rattled off a 19-3 run that decided the game.

Young did most of the damage with a three-pointer, a put-back, a dunk and two free throws. Two free throws by Gibson made it 53-33 with 14:03 left, and much of the rest of the game was spent at the foul line.

Keeping the Longhorns away from the free-throw line was crucial. Two days after taking 26 free throws during its first-round victory over New Mexico State, Texas attempted only 16 on Sunday.

USC Coach Tim Floyd, noting the discrepancy between the young Longhorns and his Trojans, who started a senior (Lodrick Stewart), two juniors (Pru itt and Young) and a 21-year-old freshman (Gibson), challenged his players before the game.

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“They’ve got four freshmen out there,” Floyd told his team in the locker room. “Are you going to let four freshmen beat you?”

Floyd said he realized early on that his team could win Sunday. “I felt we had a chance because we had as much ability as they did,” he said. “I think our talent was every bit as good as theirs.”

Nevertheless, Young said he knows there are skeptics who remain unconvinced USC has a shot in the tournament, even though Sunday’s win gave the Trojans a school record for victories in a season.

“We’re George Mason right now. We’re the underdogs,” he said. “Nobody had us winning but ourselves.”

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ben.bolch@latimes.com


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