One of the few positives USC could take away from its game Wednesday night was its run in the final two minutes that boosted the Trojans to a 75-65 win over Long Beach State at Galen Center.
The strong finish helped the Trojans overcome spotty shooting and lackluster rebounding.
“We missed a lot of wide-open shots tonight,” coach Andy Enfield said.
Nick Rakocevic started USC’s night swinging from the rim after a dunk, as the Trojans struggled to break ahead of the 49ers. The Trojans scored 10 fewer points than they averaged going into the matchup.
The teams were tied 9-9 after 11/2 minutes of play, but Derryck Thornton forced a turnover and made a fastbreak basket, prompting an 11-5 run to give the Trojans a six-point lead with less than eight minutes left in the half. USC went on to force eight Long Beach State turnovers by halftime.
Long Beach State responded with an 8-1 run in the waning minutes of the half to trail by two with two minutes to play.
USC limited the 49ers to 31.4% shooting, but Long Beach State countered by dominating at the glass, outrebounding USC 23-21 as the 49ers scored 11 second-chance points off of 10 first-half offensive boards — 18 by the game’s end.
“The biggest concern for us as a coaching staff is our defensive rebounding,” Enfield said.
The Trojans crawled back to a more convincing lead with threes from Thornton and Jonah Mathews. Moments before the half ended, Shaqquan Aaron hit a three to give the Trojans a 36-28 halftime lead.
It took more than two minutes of missed shots and a stagnant offense before USC finally made a basket in the second half. Long Beach State closed its deficit by just two points in that span, and the Trojans offense quickly recovered, and took a 14-point lead in four minutes.
Long Beach State responded with a 10-0 run as USC missed three baskets and committed two turnovers, forcing Enfield to call a timeout.
The Trojans held on. They ended the game with 12 turnovers, a problem that has plagued USC this season, averaging 12.5 turnovers with a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio going into the game. But no shortcoming was enough to lose the lead to Long Beach State.
With his team riddled with injury in the preseason, Enfield elected to focus on man-to-man defense over USC’s zone, and the players have executed.
Long Beach State was the latest success for a defense that has held opponents to 25.2% field-goal shooting per game.
“The frustrating part, a lot of times we play great defense for 20 or 30 seconds, team takes a tough shot, and we don’t rebound the ball,” Enfield said.
USC took a 66-59 lead with three straight baskets by Rakocevic, who earned a team-high 19 points and 12 rebounds but missed 10 shots.
“I missed some easy ones that I usually don’t miss,” Rakocevic said. “We got the win. That’s all that matters.”
Four misses by Trojans players allowed the 49ers to close the lead to three points.
Then, they proved they learned from their mistakes in the final minutes against Vanderbilt. Unlike that 82-78 loss, this game did not slip away.