Column: For USC, victory over UCLA was just another step in quest for Pac-12 crown
Ethan Anderson’s career-best 19-point performance against UCLA was a happy surprise for USC, given the backup point guard’s tentative play following his return from a back injury and the 5.4 points per game average he carried into Saturday’s game at Galen Center.
In breaking the personal mark he set last season against UCLA the sophomore from Carson boosted his confidence and helped lift the Trojans to the top of the Pacific-12. Those would seem to be big enough accomplishments for one night, but ESPN commentator Bill Walton — never known for understatement — insisted on giving Anderson another honor.
“They’re going to name an entire mountain range after him,” Walton declared during the national telecast of USC’s 66-48 victory.
Anderson and the Trojans reached the peak of their season by winning for the 10th time in their last 11 games, but he and his teammates considered their rivalry victory just another step forward in a long and ongoing climb toward greater things.
The Trojans (15-3, 9-2 Pac-12) were happy to hold the depleted Bruins to 48 points. They appreciated the persistent defensive play by Anderson that held UCLA guard Tyger Campbell to seven points and four assists. They were thrilled to see Anderson hit some threes late in the first half to break open the zone defense the Bruins unexpectedly had thrown at them. “Definitely it’s sweet,” said guard Tahj Eaddy, who hit three of eight three-point shots and had 16 points overall.
Cade Cunningham scored five of his 19 points during the second overtime Saturday to help Oklahoma State defeat No. 6 Texas 75-67.
And they should feel good. Their defense has been among the most effective in the country and freshman sensation Evan Mobley, though held to nine points on Saturday, contributed in other ways by grabbing nine rebounds, collecting three assists and blocking four shots. Anderson, who was scoreless in the Trojans’ 72-66 victory over Stanford last week, hit a career-best five three-pointers on Saturday and felt he had made progress in getting back to his pre-injury form.
“I was trying to help the team win. There weren’t too many ways I was doing it last game so just in terms of me stabilizing myself and reminding myself that I can play at the highest level and that I can play with anybody this is a really big game for me,” he said. “And I’m glad my teammates trusted me with the ball, my coaching staff, and we did a great job of being unselfish tonight.”
Like Anderson, the Trojans are steadily gaining confidence. They should soon crack the top 25 rankings but they’re not at the top of the mountain just yet.
“It’s a goal of ours to try and compete for a Pac-12 championship. We’re excited to be where we are but we also understand it’s a long season ahead,” USC coach Andy Enfield said in a postgame video session. “Nine games is a lot.
“Any team in this league, you see a lot of so-called upsets in our league that have happened over the last few weeks. The teams at the top can’t take anything for granted, and we certainly are not going to. We’ll try to stay focused on game to game and our next game is Thursday [at Washington] and we’ll prepare for that like we did for today.”
Anderson said he never got a definitive diagnosis for his back problems, which were identified at various times as a disk problem or fractures. He was idled for about six weeks. “They had a hard time knowing exactly what was wrong with me and they couldn’t really tell me from all the scans and stuff. But I was able to figure it out,” said Anderson, who does stretching and undergoes treatment to keep his back strong.
“I just wanted to get back to playing pain-free, because even those first few games I was playing, it was really hard on me. I’m just blessed to be here and play pain-free and able to just play the game that I want to. I’m still getting back in my groove in terms of my rhythm and defensively I’m not as good as I used to be when I first started playing, so I’m still getting back in shape and getting back into the groove.”
Highlights from USC’s 66-48 victory over UCLA at Galen Center on Saturday night.
He found a smooth and successful groove on Saturday. “All credit to him. He hit some really big shots for them,” Campbell said. “Our scouting report was something different. He’s a good player.”
If Anderson continues to improve and to show up at big moments in big games, USC’s Pac-12 title hopes will come into stronger focus. It’s there for them, and not so far out of reach. “I thought tonight was a great game to get his confidence to where it needs to be here for us to compete in the next nine games,” Enfield said. “It’s a credit to Ethan. He’s a tough young man. Very mentally tough. But when you’re out six weeks during the season it certainly wore on him from a mental aspect, and now he’s back and we’re very excited for him.”
Anderson is excited too, though he’s not shouting it from any mountaintops. “I’m not happy I got hurt but I’m happy our team got a chance to have a lot of other people step up and show what they can do, and they’ve all just been absolutely excellent,” he said. “I really enjoy watching them take over this team and really will us to where we are. I just added a little piece to it when I came back.
“I’m really happy at our position and I’m happy that all of our players know that on any given night anybody on our team can score double digits. Anybody can get hot. We’re just going to try to keep this momentum and keep rolling.”
UCLA was forced to lean heavily on Kenneth Nwuba and Mac Etienne in its 66-48 loss to USC after Jalen Hill and Cody Riley were forced to sit out.
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