USC earns crucial victory
When O.J. Mayo made one free throw and missed another with 2 minutes 16 seconds left in the second half Thursday night, it hardly seemed to matter.
USC held a seemingly comfortable 10-point cushion over California at the Galen Center, and the only thing that appeared in doubt was the final score.
Then Cal guard Jerome Randle made a high-arching three-point shot, the Trojans turned the ball over on three consecutive possessions and Golden Bears guard Patrick Christopher had his teammates on the bench celebrating when he made a three-pointer that pulled Cal into a tie with 37 seconds remaining.
The Trojans finally pulled it together in overtime, assembling a 93-89 victory that probably guaranteed them a spot in the NCAA tournament, but it wasn’t exactly a how-to guide on playing with a big lead in the final minutes.
“We had some mistakes in the final two minutes of regulation you’d like to have back,” USC Coach Tim Floyd said. “We hadn’t done that in our spread game all year long.”
Cal nearly clawed its way back from an eight-point deficit in the extra period, making it 91-89 on Ryan Anderson’s three-pointer with eight seconds to go before Mayo made two free throws to seal the outcome.
Mayo scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime and sophomores Taj Gibson and Dwight Lewis added 21 points apiece for the Trojans, who improved to 19-10 overall and 10-7 in the Pacific 10 Conference. With one regular-season game remaining Saturday against seventh-ranked Stanford, USC moved into a tie with Washington State for third place in the conference standings and assured itself of a winning Pac-10 record.
“I just can’t imagine them not taking a team with a winning record in the toughest conference in the United States,” Floyd said of the NCAA tournament selection committee, “but I can’t afford to speculate so we’re going to come and compete against Stanford.”
Said Mayo: “I hope 10 wins can do it in the Pac-10.”
Mayo had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation when he pulled up for a long three-pointer that bounced off the side of the rim.
Cal (15-13, 6-11) took an 80-78 lead early in the overtime when Anderson scored on a putback, but the Trojans scored 10 consecutive points, including a three-pointer by Mayo that gave USC an 83-80 advantage and put the Trojans ahead to stay.
Christopher scored 24 points and Anderson had 22 for the Golden Bears, who capitalized on two missed free throws by Mayo and one by Hackett in the final 2:16 of regulation.
The Trojans appeared in trouble early in the second half when Randle made his third three-point basket to give Cal a 50-42 lead. But USC wiped out that deficit in what seemed like a nanosecond with a 12-0 run highlighted by five points and two assists from Mayo.
The first Mayo assist, to fellow freshman Davon Jefferson for a dunk, gave USC a 52-50 lead, its first advantage since the opening minutes.
The second assist, to Gibson for a dunk after Mayo had collected the rebound on his own miss, extended the cushion to four points and left the crowd roaring.
“O.J. was a difference-maker in the second half,” Floyd said.
The first half was a false start all around for USC.
There was an inadvertent horn that sounded during a Mayo jump shot that missed and two delays because of clock and horn malfunctions. Cal took a 37-31 lead into intermission.
But even with the shaky finish, Floyd said he was pleased that his team “didn’t lie down and quit competing” amid adversity.