Bennie Boatwright shuffled clumsily on a pair of oversized crutches when he emerged from the visitors’ locker room Wednesday evening. His left knee was cocooned in a bulky brace that prevented his leg from bending. He gave a half smile, then shuffled through a hallway toward USC’s bus.
Moments earlier, USC (7-0) had improved upon their best start in 16 years with a 76-55 win over San Diego, but the game became of secondary importance by the fourth minute, when Boatwright planted on his left leg, was undercut by a defender and fell to the hardwood cradling his knee and holding it in the air.
Boatwright was unable to walk without assistance and missed the rest of the game. Trainers said they believed Boatwright damaged his medial collateral ligament, according to Coach Andy Enfield, who said it was “at least a sprain. We’re hoping it’s just a sprain.”
Boatwright will undergo an MRI on Thursday.
“He’ll certainly be out for a while,” Enfield said. “We’re hoping it’s a few weeks versus a season.”
Two players and a trainer were needed to hoist Boatwright off the court and help him to the bench. He spent the remainder of the first half on a trainer’s table with ice on his knee and, occasionally, a towel over his face. Two teammates again helped him to the locker room at halftime.
The injury prolonged a miserable stretch for Boatwright, who sustained a partially torn labrum in his hip in the offseason, followed by back spasms that forced him to miss the season’s first two games
“He’s had a tough summer,” forward Chimezie Metu said. “He’s probably practiced — I don’t even know how many times. It’s really sad.”
USC played as if preoccupied for the next 10 minutes of the first half against San Diego (2-5), but the game was never much in question. USC was too big and too athletic. Before the opening tip, someone in the pep band gasped and yelled out, “Their team is so tall!”
It was a succinct analysis. San Diego’s tallest starter, Cameron Neubauer, is 6 feet 7. He and the diminutive Toreros had to defend Metu, USC’s rangy forward, who is 6-11.
Metu, a sophomore, possessed the highest potential of any USC player, but he was raw last season. In the offseason, he refined a midrange jump shot and a dribble drive as a complement when defender’s crowded his shot.
When San Diego chopped the lead to six in the first half with a fusillade of three-pointers (the Toreros made six of 19 attempts in the first half; USC made just half of that all game, in 18 attempts), Metu took over. Metu soared for tap-in at the rim. He drained a fadeaway jumper, falling down, from the free-throw line. He splashed a turnaround hook from the wing.
Shaqquan Aaron finished the run with a knife toward the rim and a fadeaway finish while falling down. It was an 8-0 run. USC’s lead wouldn’t dip into the single digits for the rest of the contest.
Metu made nine of 11 shots for 19 points and 13 rebounds, both season highs. It was his most productive performance since he scored 21 with eight rebounds against UCLA last season.
The contest provided a preview of USC’s path forward without Boatwright. At times, USC went big, with Metu playing Boatwright’s power-forward position and Charles Buggs or Nick Rakocevic playing center. Other times, it went small with four guards. In either case, Boatwright wasn’t easily replaced.
Saturday vs. Brigham Young, 5 p.m., Staples Center, ESPNU — USC will play the nightcap against BYU (4-2) after Arizona plays Gonzaga at the Hoophall LA showcase. The Cougars have dropped two of their last three contests, with losses to Valparaiso and Utah Valley.
Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand