Trojans keep it totally together
Second-half collapses cost or nearly cost USC in several of its first 10 games.
So when the Trojans found themselves with a narrow halftime lead against Georgia Tech on Monday night, they were determined to fix the problem.
“We couldn’t throw another game away,” junior point guard Daniel Hackett said.
USC came out crisp after the break, forced several steals and bombed away from the perimeter and with dunks en route to a quick 14-point lead and an eventual 76-57 victory before an announced crowd of 4,121 at the Galen Center.
On a night when the Trojans lost yet another frontcourt player early in the game, they finished with a flourish to improve to 8-3.
For the second consecutive game, freshman forward DeMar DeRozan stepped up at key moments, helping the Trojans defeat a major-conference opponent for the first time this season.
After falling to Seton Hall of the Big East and Missouri and Oklahoma of the Big 12, USC got a confidence boost by taking out the Yellow Jackets of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Despite the loss of freshman forward Leonard Washington, who suffered an ankle injury in the opening minute, the Trojans stymied Georgia Tech’s inside game by rotating in senior Keith Wilkinson, freshman Nikola Vucevic and redshirt freshman Mamadou Diarra.
“We kind of made them a perimeter team and we were able to get to the lane and shoot free throws,” Coach Tim Floyd said.
No one shot more than Hackett, who made 11 of 12 and finished with 15 points.
Taj Gibson had 15 points and 14 rebounds. Guard Dwight Lewis came back from a two-for-10 shooting night against North Dakota State, and made seven of 10 on his way to a team-high 19 points.
But it was DeRozan who keyed a 14-2 run at the start of the second half.
“DeRozan’s growing in front of our eyes right now,” Floyd said. “He’s taking quality shots, he’s not turning the ball over, he’s guarding his man very well and getting more comfortable with what he’s doing on the offensive end every game.”
DeRozan, who had 17 points, scored the Trojans’ first six points after the break as the Trojans increased a 36-34 halftime lead to 42-36. Lewis made a shot and then scored on a dunk off an assist from DeRozan, pushing the lead to 10.
A Gibson steal led to a dunk by Hackett, and Hackett’s steal on the ensuing Georgia Tech possession led to a pass to Wilkinson and a high-flying dunk by DeRozan for a 14-point lead.
Georgia Tech (7-3) never got closer than nine points the rest of the way.
“Give USC credit,” Coach Paul Hewitt said. “They got comfortable with the ball.”
DeRozan, who scored a career-high 18 points Saturday against North Dakota State, credited his progress to “soaking in everything day in and day out.”
The outburst at the start of the second half helped ease the strain of Washington’s injury at the outset.
The freshman from Louisiana, who had scored a career-best 17 points against North Dakota State, suffered what Floyd described as a left high-ankle sprain while trying to grab a rebound.
Washington is scheduled to have an MRI exam but there is no telling how long the injury will keep him sidelined. His injury continues a streak of news and injuries that have left the Trojans thin in the frontcourt.
In November, the NCAA ruled that North Carolina transfer Alex Stepheson could not play until next season. A few days later, Kasey Cunningham suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss against Missouri.
Wilkinson, Vucevic and Diarra are expected to help fill the void as the Trojans conclude their nonconference schedule Sunday against Oral Roberts.
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