When Andy Enfield strolled onto the court at T-Mobile Arena on Friday night, the toll of the past five months didn’t show.
The immaculately dressed USC basketball coach grinned, chuckled and looked as relaxed as someone in town to catch a show and enjoy dinner out.
Though most of Enfield’s 48 years have been spent in and around basketball — as a deadeye shooter at Johns Hopkins, assistant coach, shot doctor for NBA players, coaching Florida Gulf Coast’s run into NCAA tournament lore — nothing could have prepared him for this season’s relentless challenges.
But the obstacle-strewn months somehow led to a Pac-12 tournament semifinal against longtime nemesis Oregon. Never mind USC’s slew of injuries or off-court problems. The Trojans continued their late-season surge by defeating the Ducks 74-54.
"It's really amazing what our players have done and our coaching staff to stay together," Enfield said. "It's amazing that we're here."
The third victory against Oregon this season — the Ducks beat USC in 14 straight games entering this year — pushed the Trojans into Saturday’s championship game against Arizona. The win also provided a significant boost to USC’s hopes of earning a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Before Friday’s game, one website tracking bracket projections found 77 of 80 predicted USC (23-10) will be in the tournament for the third consecutive season.
This might have seemed far-fetched five months ago.
In September, FBI agents arrested Enfield’s top assistant, Tony Bland, as part of the college basketball bribery and corruption probe. The school placed Bland on administrative leave and eventually fired him.
“We can still have the kind of year we want to have,” guard Jordan McLaughlin said at the time. “It’s still up to us.”
But USC held out De’Anthony Melton, the team’s best defender, all season because of his link to the scandal. He eventually left the program. Two top recruits decommitted. Defensive problems led to four losses in six games, putting the season on the brink before conference play started.
Injuries ravaged the deep, talented roster ranked among the nation’s top 10 teams in the preseason. Even Friday, USC played without second-leading scorer Bennie Boatwright, out for the season with a knee injury, and Derryck Thornton, the team’s fastest player who is fighting illness.
None of the obstacles mattered in an atmosphere resembling a basketball-themed circus. Bill Walton fist-bumped the Oregon Duck. Music thundered. Pregame flames, smoke machines and swirling lights gave way to the white facemasks of Jabbawockeez, touted as the “world’s most influential dance crew.”
In keeping with this season’s theme, none of the distractions bothered USC.
Chimezie Metu, coming off a dominant effort in Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Oregon State, was held to two points in the first half. The uncharacteristic struggles of the Trojans’ best player didn’t matter. Jonah Mathews and Elijah Stewart picked up the slack, combining for seven three-pointers to help the Trojans build a 14-point halftime lead.
Mathews finished with a game-high 27 points, including seven three-pointers, while Stewart added 15 points.
Oregon (22-12) had no answers. Metu’s dunk off a pass from McLaughlin early in the second half extended the lead to 21 points, continued the rout and the history-making season for Enfield’s team.
USC’s 70 wins — and counting — over the past three seasons are the most in school history. The Trojans finished second in the Pac-12 during the regular season, their first outright second place since 1992. And USC has won 12 of its past 16 games.
That’s probably why Enfield looked at peace Friday. The turmoil finally faded into the background. As the horn blared to end the game, the sparse crowd roared and the public address announcer’s voice rose about it all: “Trojans win.”
Saturday vs. Arizona, 7 p.m., T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas. TV: FS1 — The Wildcats defeated the Trojans 81-67 in their only meeting this season.