Once again, USC can’t find its way against zone defense

Coming off Thursday’s blowout win against Stanford, USC Coach Kevin O’Neill explained his team’s up-and-down season by saying the Trojans can’t handle success.

Not exactly.

What they really can’t handle, this season and last, is a zone defense. Every time the Trojans see one, they look like lost tourists in a foreign land: confused and in need of help.

Senior guard Donte Smith did the best he could to shoot USC out of one against California on Saturday night at the Galen Center, but his career-high game of 24 points on eight three-point shots wasn’t enough, and the Trojans lost a nail-biter, 68-66.


USC freshman forward Garrett Jackson hit a three-point shot with 36 seconds left to pull USC to within three points, but the Bears hung on for the victory.

California (10-9, 3-4 in Pacific 10 Conference play) played zone defense almost exclusively against USC (11-9, 3-4), after Stanford, which USC beat by 23 points two days earlier, hardly played any. As a result, USC, which has lost three of four, is tied for fifth place in the Pac-10, moving farther from its goal of making a postseason tournament.

Both teams began the game exchanging scoring runs and scoring droughts.

USC went on a 14-0 run, and California closed the first half with a 19-4 run for a 30-22 lead.

USC had lost five of six games when trailing at halftime, so a loss seemed probable.

But Smith kept the Trojans in it in the second half, making three consecutive three-point baskets at one point. He hit his eighth three-point shot with 3 minutes 37 seconds left to pull USC to within one.

Smith’s hot second-half shooting was in stark contrast to USC’s three-point shooting in the first, when it missed nine of 11 shots.

USC and California combining to miss 17 of their first 20 attempts in the first half.

That changed in the second half as players on both teams heated up, namely Smith. He dazzled a crowd that included Athletic Director Pat Haden, back from USC’s morning meeting in Indianapolis with the NCAA’s Infractions Appeals Committee regarding the Trojans football team.

When Haden walked to his usual seat midway through the first half, some fans shouted his way and Haden responded with two thumbs up and a wide smile.

California was buoyed by a balanced scoring effort with four players reaching double digits, led by Harper Kamp’s 19 points.

Marcus Simmons, USC’s version of New York Jets shutdown cornerback Darrelle Revis, guarded California’s top scorer, freshman guard Allen Crabbe, who entered averaging 17.3 points in conference play.

Simmons kept the former Los Angeles Price star below that average, as Crabbe scored 12 points on four-for-10 shooting.

Cal shot 23 for 51 (45.1%), and USC shot 23 for 57 (40.4%) for the game.

Foul trouble plagued both teams, which are short on depth in part because each had talented freshman shooting guards decide to transfer midseason, with both citing a lack of playing time.

California’s Gary Franklin Jr., a former Santa Ana Mater Dei star and onetime USC commit, was, like USC’s Bryce Jones, a Woodland Hills Taft star, a starter earlier in the season but was moved to the bench and then decided to move on.

Franklin chose Baylor, and a source close to Jones said he is deciding among Gonzaga, Texas El Paso and San Diego State.