For openers, Trojans overpower Anteaters

Pucin is a Times staff writer.

The blowout started innocently enough, a buzzer-beating three-point shot just before halftime made by USC freshman Leonard Washington, a rousing way to send a team high-fiving its way to the locker room.

Another three-pointer, by Dwight Lewis, started the Trojans’ second half and that momentum gathered until 18th-ranked USC beat UC Irvine, 78-55, Saturday at the Galen Center. It was the season opener for both teams.

It was also the first time in four years at USC that Coach Tim Floyd’s team began the season with a victory. After being reality-slapped by Cal State Northridge, South Carolina and Mercer to start each of the previous three seasons, junior center Taj Gibson said the Trojans were very aware of the negative opener aura surrounding them.

“We talked a lot about that in practice,” said Gibson, who had 17 points, six rebounds and five blocked shots. “It doesn’t matter who you play, Irvine or UCLA, teams are trying to compete and we really needed to get this season started on the right track.”

Highly regarded freshman DeMar DeRozan had 14 points and two steals in his college debut, a performance Floyd said was just what he wanted.


“Things come easy for DeMar because of his innate scoring ability,” Floyd said. “Today he played within himself and didn’t try to do too much.”

Lewis led USC in scoring (18) and rebounds (seven), and had three assists and two steals. Junior guard Darren Moore had 16 points for the Anteaters.

Starting with a 12-foot jump shot by DeRozan and continuing with Washington’s three-pointer to end the first half and Lewis’ three-pointer to start the second half, the Trojans had a 12-0 run to build a 42-29 lead with 18 minutes 20 seconds left. USC led by as many as 27 points (71-44 on a Lewis dunk) and earned praise from Irvine Coach Pat Douglass.

“They’re very good, very athletic,” Douglass said. “They doubled us more than we were expecting and that caused us problems.”

Even songster Percy (L’il Romeo) Miller got playing time. Miller, No. 15, wore his basketball shorts almost to his ankles and he made the crowd laugh with his facial expressions. He got applause when he got a rebound with 57 seconds left and high-fived all his teammates at the end.

Floyd, a tough critic of his own team, was satisfied with what he called a “mature” effort. He appreciated that point guard Daniel Hackett made the effort at the beginning of each half to get the ball to Gibson rather than letting the team settle for jump shots.

He said that Lewis is USC’s most improved player.

“He had seven rebounds and that’s something he wouldn’t have done a year ago,” Floyd said. “He made a couple of great feeds to the post and he only took quality shots, nothing crazy.”

The rebounds by everybody were noticeable. After the Anteaters had an 18-14 lead in the first half, USC ended up with a 38-28 rebounding advantage.

A sign that the offense worked well were the 17 assists on 29 field goals. The Trojans shot 51.8% from the field and Hackett said that was a point of emphasis.

“We’ve got some young guys, but we want to establish an inside-out game and get good shots,” Hackett said. “We want to have the mind-set to throw the ball into Taj first and go from there. I think that will work.”



USC up next

Tuesday vs. New Mexico State, 6 p.m.

Site -- Galen Center.

Radio -- 710 AM.

Update -- The Aggies opened their season with a 79-52 win over UC Riverside. Head coach Marvin Menzies, a UCLA graduate, was a USC assistant for a season under Henry Bibby. Before coming to New Mexico State, Menzies was an assistant to Rick Pitino at Louisville.

-- Diane Pucin