The day had brought the difficult news to USC that forward Alex Stepheson, one of the Trojans’ biggest players by size and value, had a fractured left hand.
But by night’s end, the Trojans’ smallest player, 5-foot-7 freshman guard Maurice Jones, was able to deliver some good news, dazzling the Galen Center with a game-high 29 points in USC’s 86-73 win against Santa Clara.
Jones shot 10 for 20, many on driving layups, some from impossible angles. He also had five assists, a few on no-look passes that made the crowd do double-takes at instant replays shown on the video board.
“It looked like a high school rerun for me,” said USC Coach Kevin O’Neill, who raved all preseason about his point guard’s capabilities. “It’s not a fluke that he makes these plays.”
Jones scored 13 points in the first half and 16 in the second, mostly on consecutive high-ball screens in which he attacked the basket, as O’Neill instructed until the Broncos could stop him.
But they couldn’t, and when USC trailed, 52-51, with 12:14 in the second half, Jones scored eight points in a 15-5 run that helped seal the win.
Jones was three points short of the USC Galen Center scoring record set by former Trojan O.J. Mayo, whose records have since been vacated.
Did it feel like high school?
“Not really,” Jones said. “It was more intense, more people, a faster pace than high school, but it felt good.”
Was it harder than high school?
“Not much harder.”
As for Stepheson, the 6-foot-10 senior isn’t sure how he fractured his hand during Saturday’s opener against UC Irvine.
He wore a black cast on that hand and finished with six points and seven rebounds in 40 minutes.
“It didn’t hurt, but it was definitely difficult to catch the ball, rebound, to do the things you can do with your left hand,” said Stepheson, who said he was told his hand should be healed in two to three weeks.
Stepheson’s presence alone helped deter the Broncos, who were led by guard Kevin Foster’s 26 points on eight of-19-shooting.
“Without his presence in there, it would have been a hard night for us,” O’Neill said.
Stepheson, half of USC’s projected dominant duo with forward Nikola Vucevic (22 points and 11 rebounds), sent O’Neill a text message Monday afternoon when he learned about his hand, telling him he would play. O’Neill obliged him.
Stepheson’s future minutes won’t be limited, O’Neill said, but he will be given more rest on the days between games. Stepheson said he will ice his hand after each game for now.
USC’s two freshmen guards, Maurice Jones and Bryce Jones (no relation, but roommates), more than picked up any slack felt by the limited Stepheson, or when USC’s senior guard Marcus Simmons and Donte Smith sat on the bench with four fouls for much of the second half.
Bryce finished with 15 points on five-of-eight shooting.
The night got off to a poor start for USC when Smith was assessed a Class B technical foul for dunking during pregame warm-ups, giving Foster two free throws before the game tipped off.
That wasn’t a sign of bad things to come for the Trojans, though, who continue an eight-games-in-16-days grind Wednesday when they play host to the Rider Broncs in their first game of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off.