It doesn’t get any better for the Trojans at home
After USC lost its first two Pacific 10 Conference games last weekend in the Bay Area, the Trojans consoled themselves with the thought that they would be returning home for a week.
Now even that offers little solace.
The Galen Center proved to be more of a sanctuary for No. 4 Washington State than it was for USC on Thursday night during the Cougars’ 73-58 victory before a season-high crowd of 10,027.
Even with freshman guard O.J. Mayo’s game-high 22 points and an inspired effort from sophomore forward Taj Gibson, who scored 16 points, the Trojans were somewhat short-handed from the start.
Freshman forward Davon Jefferson, USC’s second-leading scorer who was averaging 11.9 points, did not play, with Coach Tim Floyd saying Jefferson “did not make the cut tonight” but refusing to elaborate. Junior forward RouSean Cromwell replaced Jefferson in the starting lineup and did not score.
“It’s tough for everyone on the floor without a player we feel can help us,” Mayo said of Jefferson. “He’s a player that can help us get rebounds and put the ball in the basket.”
Floyd said Jefferson, who left before reporters reached the locker room, would play Saturday against Washington.
“He’s a young player and there’s a lot of room for growth with Davon,” Floyd said. “That’s all I’m going to say about it.”
Junior forward Daven Harmeling scored 19 points and junior center Aron Baynes had 18 for Washington State, which became the third consecutive team to defeat USC despite shooting worse from the field. The Cougars shot 47.2% to USC’s 54.2% but won in part because they made eight more three-point shots than the Trojans.
“I do not remember them taking a bad shot all night long,” Floyd said of the Cougars. “I can recall a few that we took.”
Already having achieved the highest ranking in school history, Washington State, 14-0 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-10, continued to close in on the program’s best start. The Cougars opened the 1914-15 season 17-0.
Standing in the Cougars’ way is fifth-ranked UCLA on Saturday at Pauley Pavilion.
USC (9-6, 0-3) appears headed in the other direction, opening Pac-10 play with three consecutive losses for the first time since the 2004-05 team dropped its first five conference games en route to a last-place finish.
The last Pac-10 team to open 0-3 in conference play and make the NCAA tournament was Stanford in 2004-05 -- and that necessitated a six-game Pac-10 winning streak.
The Cougars simply outworked USC for much of the game, knocking away balls and grabbing offensive rebounds to extend possessions. Senior guard Derrick Low missed one three-point shot midway through the second half and it was no big deal after forward Robbie Cowgill pulled down the rebound and Washington State worked the ball back to Low for a successful three-pointer that gave the Cougars a 45-33 lead.
The Trojans made a final push, pulling the score to 64-56 on two free throws by sophomore guard Dwight Lewis (16 points) with 2:54 to go. But Washington State worked the shot clock on its next possession and found Baynes inside for a dunk.
“We’ve just got to get better as a team and stay together through a tough time like this,” Mayo said. “We’re all not very happy. We feel like we’re better than we’re playing right now.”
It had been a one-point game early in the second half after Gibson skillfully navigated his way to the basket on a driving layup to pull USC within one, 30-29. But Baynes had a dunk, Kyle Weaver made two free throws and Low converted a three-pointer to extend the lead to eight points.
The Cougars closed the first half on a 9-2 run, with Harmeling making three consecutive three-pointers to turn a 21-18 deficit into a 27-23 lead at the break.