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USC is in a better place after 75-65 victory over Arizona State

USC is in a better place after 75-65 victory over Arizona State
USC guard Jordan McLaughlin (11) drives to the basket against Arizona State guard Tra Holder (0) and forward Eric Jacobsen (21) in the first half at Galen Center on Thursday. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

USC started Thursday's game against Arizona State with the same fast-paced flair that helped the Trojans jump out to a 22-point advantage over Washington on Sunday.

Just like in that game, they seemed intent on giving it all back in the closing minutes.

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But this time around, there was ultimately no letdown for the Trojans, who improved to 10-0 at the Galen Center and 13-3 overall, surpassing last season's win total, with a 75-65 victory.

USC, which entered Thursday as the Pac-12 Conference leader in three-pointers, got to work early from beyond the arc, as four of its first five baskets were three-pointers. The other was a dunk by freshman big man Chimezie Metu, who followed that up later in the half with a one-handed alley-oop dunk off an inbounds pass.

"I saw an arm about two feet above the rim," noted Coach Andy Enfield after USC had improved to 2-1 in Pac-12 play.

Though the Trojans shot the ball well from deep, making seven of 16 three-point shots, it was their interior play on both sides of the court that proved to be the difference.

Freshman Bennie Boatwright — first on the team in three-pointers made — showed a new level of aggressiveness, ripping down rebounds against bigger opponents and navigating his 6-foot-10 frame from end to end for a layup in the second half. Junior forward Darion Clark grabbed 10 rebounds and junior Nikola Jovanovic had four blocks — all in the first half.

"The difference is night and day," junior guard Julian Jacobs said of his team's energy compared to last season. "It's infectious."

USC's assertiveness resulted in a tepid offensive performance from the Sun Devils, who made one of their first eight shots and also missed their first five free throws. Though their field goal percentage improved, it didn't improve much — they shot 10 of 32 (31.3%) in the first half, and 26 of 68 (38.2%) overall.

Arizona State (10-5, 0-2) was ice cold from the three-point line until the game's final minutes, when it knocked down five of eight three-pointers in a five-minute span to cut USC's lead to two points. The catalyst for the frenetic comeback was sophomore guard Tra Holder, who scored a game-high 21 points.

"We're fortunate to pull through," Enfield said. "I give our guys credit for withstanding their run at the end, and I'm proud of them."

USC got 15 points in 29 minutes from Jacobs, who was sidelined in the second half Sunday after suffering a sprained ankle.

Enfield kept Jacobs on the court for slightly shorter spurts, but he finished with five assists and four rebounds.

"I didn't think he'd play tonight," Enfield said. "He was so emphatic about playing that I felt like my hands were tied … to shoot a high percentage after going through four and a half days of rehabbing and therapy on his ankle is just unbelievably impressive."

The Trojans looked a bit out of sorts in the opening minutes of the second half, with a couple of errant shots and poorly run set plays.

But Arizona State hardly took advantage, putting a three-point dent into a 10-point halftime margin that was quickly erased with a 6-0 run spurred by Boatwright and sophomore Elijah Stewart. It wasn't until the closing minutes that the Sun Devils struck, and just when it appeared that the tables had turned, USC converted three straight layups off leakouts to seal the win.

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"We feel very capable of winning this league," Jacobs said. "With that mentality, we feel like we're just as good as anybody."

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