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USC improves to 5-0 with 78-73 victory over SMU

USC improves to 5-0 with 78-73 victory over SMU
USC guard De'Anthony Melton takes a shot against the defense of Southern Methodist forward Semi Ojeleye during the second half on Nov. 25. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

When De'Anthony Melton and the rest of USC's freshman class committed to the Trojans, everyone involved figured playing time would be scarce.

"We always thought they were good players," Coach Andy Enfield said. "We didn't necessarily think they'd be playing this many minutes based on our personnel, who we thought we might have coming into this season."

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Melton, too, thought he'd initially ride the bench and learn.

So it has come as a mild surprise to everyone that, just five games into the season, USC can credit its two most impressive wins to Melton. On Friday, the backup point guard powered a second-half comeback off the bench in the Trojans' 78-73 victory over Southern Methodist, a team that finished 25-5 last season.

SMU (4-2) had a four-point lead five minutes into the second half while Melton sat. Then he entered, and USC wrestled back control of the game by ripping off 14 unanswered points. Melton accounted for nine of them.

He sparked the run with a three-pointer, then knifed between defenders with a Euro step for a layup on the next possession. Shortly afterward, he hit the first of two free throws, then capped the streak by splashing another three-pointer.

He scored 15 points in all, a career high, with six rebounds and five assists. Another freshman, guard Jonah Mathews, scored 14 points, also a career high, with two assists and two rebounds. A third, forward Nick Rakocevic, had two points and four rebounds but played just nine minutes because of foul trouble. All came off the bench.

"We don't have a lot of players on our team," Enfield said. "We're relying on them to help us win games, like they did tonight."

Their ascendance was made possible by a wave of departures in the off-season, including four transfers and two surprise entries into the professional ranks.

"Coach really tells us that, who cares if they left?" Melton said. "If we play as a team, we'll probably be better than them."

In fact, USC's 5-0 start equals last season's, the best for the program since 2000.

Beating SMU, a team that finished No. 24 in last season's Associated Press top 25 but was ineligible for postseason play, gave the Trojans a second quality win. A week ago, Melton hit a late three-pointer and absconded with a game-clinching steal in a win at Texas A&M, which reached the final 16 of last season's NCAA tournament.

Friday's game also re-energized Bennie Boatwright, who was making his third start since missing time with a partially torn labrum and back spasms. In his first two contests, he made five of 24 shots and hit just two three-pointers.

"My rhythm was off," he said. "Everything was off. It was all bad."

Boatwright led all scorers Friday with 17 points. He made four of seven three-point attempts. And he shut down forward Semi Ojeleye, SMU's leading scorer, who was averaging almost 21 points per game.

Ojelye managed 13 points and 10 rebounds, but six points came on two three-pointers when Boatwright wasn't defending.

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Ojelye scored all of his points in the second half, but USC never let him get on a run. The Trojans made seven of 11 three-point shots in the period.

"Every single guy is a big threat on USC," SMU Coach Tim Jankovich said afterward.

Melton, the most surprising of those threats, returned to the court after the game to shoot around with a group of younger kids and family members. He remained there for more than an hour after the game had ended. He'd already seen more playing time than he expected, and he was back for more.

Twitter: @zhelfand

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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