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Washington State poses a significant challenge for Trojans

USC’s lock-down defense shut down Washington’s high-powered offense Wednesday.

It held the Huskies to 35.5 points below their season average by the start of overtime — and didn’t give up a fastbreak point.

It forced Washington into 17 turnovers — after the Huskies committed a total of nine in their two previous games — and kept star guard Isaiah Thomas (10 points, six turnovers) in check.

But that all went for naught in an 73-67 loss, forcing USC (8-6, 0-1 in conference play) to quickly regroup before facing the Pacific 10 Conference’s surprise team, Washington State (10-3, 0-1), and the league’s top scorer, guard Klay Thompson, on Friday afternoon.

Thompson is averaging 22.6 points and had 26 in a the Cougars’ 80-71 loss at UCLA on Wednesday.

And as dangerous as Thompson is, USC Coach Kevin O’Neill said containing junior guard Faisal Aden (16.3 points) and sophomore guard Reggie Moore (7.8 points, 3.9 assists) is just as crucial.

“If you let Klay, Aden and Moore get off, you’re going to have a long night,” he said.

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Salvaging a split in the first week of Pac-10 play won’t be easy after Wednesday’s crushing loss against the team favored to win the conference title, O’Neill said.

“Our players were really tuned into that game,” O’Neill said. “You could tell it by the way they started. You could tell it by the way they fought.”

O’Neill said he expects Washington State to play a zone defense, and he hopes USC’s guards shoot better than they did against the Huskies, when they misfired on 29 of 39 shots, 15 of 18 from three-point range.

“I’m confident our guys are going to make shots,” he said.

Vucevic earns praise

USC forward Nikola Vucevic received some hefty praise from Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar after the 6-foot-10 junior scored a career-high 28 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against the Huskies.

“Vucevic is an absolute matchup nightmare,” Romar said. “He is a really good player, an NBA player if I’ve ever seen one.”

One NBA scout offered adifferent opinion after Vucevic’ 24-point, 14-rebound performance in USC’s 73-56 upset of No. 19 Texas on Dec. 5.

“He’s a big guy who has shown great growth in his years at USC,” the scout said, speaking anonymously because his team doesn’t want his opinions public. “He’s gotten stronger, but he needs to work on his agility.”

The scout suggested that Vucevic should return for his senior season.

O’Neill lauded Vucevic’ performance, considering it came against a zone defense designed to stop him.

Vucevic, who made all 14 of his free throws, lauded Washington’s game plan on defense, saying he had to work hard for his points.

“When we called a play, they knew what to do,” he said. “They knew most of our plays for me and [Alex Stepheson]. They got there before we did.”

Mutual admiration

Despite that good scouting, Romar still called USC the Huskies’ “toughest matchup in the league without a doubt.”

Said Romar: “They play a really tough, physical game and they make very few mistakes. They give you nothing.”

Said O’Neill of Washington: “Watching the tape, I thought they’re as talented as anyone we’ve played.”

Washington is unranked, and USC has played three ranked teams. The Trojans defeated Texas and Tennessee and lost by two points at No. 3 Kansas.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com


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