As speakers blasted “Mony Mony” midway through the first half Sunday, the defensive lapses and erratic play that marked the first half of the season for USC seemed far away.
Instead, the 4,822 at Galen Center celebrated the Trojans finally resembling the group picked among the nation’s top 10 teams during the preseason.
Behind a barrage of three-point baskets and a suffocating defense, USC beat Utah 84-67. The game wasn’t even as close as the score.
“They’ve been to two consecutive NCAA tournaments and they know what it takes,” USC coach Andy Enfield said.
Sophomore Jonah Mathews came off the bench to score a team-high 17 points, including consecutive three-pointers that ignited the celebration and turned the game into a blowout.
USC (13-6, 4-2 Pac-12 Conference) had dropped eight consecutive games to Utah, not beating the Utes since January 2013.
Mathews said Utah (10-7, 2-4) coaches and players reminded USC of the streak “before, during and after the whole game.”
But the Trojans held the Utes to 46.9% shooting from the field, continuing their improved defense since last month’s debacle against Washington. USC also forced 17 turnovers.
“If we can keep doing that, we’ll have a chance, whether it’s at home or on the road,” Enfield said.
The Trojans had 14 three-pointers, including three each from Mathews and senior Elijah Stewart.
It was USC’s first game since the school announced Thursday that sophomore De’Anthony Melton, linked to the college basketball bribery probe, would be held out for the rest of the season. The decision prompted a series of furious tweets from junior Chimezie Metu. He made a habit of wearing “#FREEDMELT” T-shirts during postgame news conferences in recent weeks. None were in evidence Sunday.
Metu, never one to hide his feelings, picked up a technical foul late in the second half for trash talk after a jump shot.
“He’s like that right now because of the whole De’Anthony thing,” junior Shaqquan Aaron said. “They’re pretty close and he’s pretty upset.”
Melton sat on the end of the bench in a gray sweatsuit, his usual spot this season while USC investigated his eligibility. A person close to the versatile guard said he is still deciding whether to return to the Trojans next season. For the time being, he remains on scholarship and practices with the team.
Enfield said Melton “dominated” practice after the announcement Thursday, then worked on his shot for 45 minutes.
USC didn’t need him against Utah.
“When you get back on the court,” Aaron said, “use that anger as fuel to dominate.”
vs. Oregon, Thursday, at Knight Arena, 6 p.m. TV: ESPN2. The Trojans have lost seven consecutive games in Eugene, Ore., last beating the Ducks there Jan. 2, 2009. Overall, USC has lost 14 consecutive games against Oregon.