In a potential "trap" game against a winless opponent, the USC men's basketball team did what it was supposed to do Sunday night at the Galen Center.
After a lethargic offensive effort against Southern Methodist two days earlier, the Trojans looked more like a squad prepared for the grind of Pac-12 play as they pulled away late for a 96-72 nonconference victory over UC Santa Barbara.
All five starters finished in double figures and crisp ball movement led to 25 assists on 33 made baskets, as the Trojans produced their highest points total this season after entering the game seventh among Pac-12 teams in scoring offense at 77.6 points per contest.
"This was a challenging game," USC Coach Andy Enfield said. "They attacked us inside and their bigs caught ours by surprise. They played zone against us, which left the corners open and we made 40% of our three-point attempts.
"We also had eight blocks so as the game went on we were more active around the rim and made it harder for their bigs to get the ball."
Bennie Boatwright led the way with 21 points, Elijah Stewart had 18, Chimezie Metu and Shaqquan Aaron each had 15 and Jordan McLaughlin added 13 for USC (6-0), which improved to 13-1 all time against the visiting Gauchos, including a 75-63 road win last December.
USC came out shooting from the tip. Its first four baskets were three-pointers, two by Stewart and one each by Boatwright and McLaughlin, as the Trojans opened a 14-6 lead in the first four minutes. They finished 14 for 35 from beyond the arc.
"Of course we're happy to be undefeated, but we still have things we need to fix," McLaughlin said. "You want to improve every year and I'm still learning to be a more efficient point guard. My responsibility is to lead the team and make sure everyone touches the ball. We struggled in the first half tonight and that's on me. We should've attacked the zone better, but we got some blocks and our defense turns into offense."
The Gauchos (0-5) pulled to within 25-23 on a put-back by Alex Hart with 6:30 left in the first half, but Boatwright made a three-pointer, Stewart dunked off a length-of-the court pass from McLaughlin and Aaron hit a corner three to build the lead back up to nine.
Santa Barbara trailed only 43-38 at halftime despite USC making eight of 19 long-range shots and being in the foul bonus for the final 8:55.
Nick Rakocevic had eight points off the bench and De'Anthony Melton added six points, five assists and four steals for the Trojans.
Back-to-back threes by McLaughlin and Boatwright gave the Trojans a 10-point advantage with 14 minutes remaining.
After Boatwright rattled in another three-pointer, Stewart dunked on an alley-oop from Melton, who followed with a steal and dunk to make it 73-59 with 7:10 left.
Jalen Canty led the Gauchos with 16 points and 10 rebounds, Gabe Vincent had 15 points and Hart added 14.
"We're still a work in progress," McLaughlin said. "We do feel like we can come back from being down, but we don't want to be in that situation all the time.