USC defeats Oregon State to pull within a game of first place in Pac-12

Oregon State guard Gianni Hunt shoots against USC forward Isaiah Mobley.
Oregon State guard Gianni Hunt is covered by USC forward Isaiah Mobley during the first half Thursday at Galen Center.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

In a season so uncertain second chances are hardly assured. So in its second shot at Oregon State in just over a week, USC made sure to stockpile as many second, third, and even fourth chances as possible to ensure a 75-62 victory Thursday at Galen Center.

The result was a dominant performance on the offensive glass, which gave way, eventually, to shots falling from the perimeter. What began as a grinding, back-and-forth affair, similar to last week’s ugly two-point defeat at Oregon State, turned into a fiery effort from the field in which USC shot nearly 62% in the second half and buried the Beavers.

“We didn’t play a perfect game today,” USC coach Andy Enfield said, “but we grinded out a home win which was important.”

It was an especially redemptive stretch for an offense that went ice cold when it mattered most the last time these teams met. The Trojans were held scoreless for the final 2:19 against the Beavers on Jan. 19, squandering every opportunity at completing a comeback in what wound up being their first loss of 2021.

So on Thursday, Enfield tried a different approach. After shooting 33% in the first half, USC (13-3, 7-2 in the Pac-12) played with four guards for much of the second, spreading the floor as much as possible around either freshman Evan Mobley or graduate transfer Chevez Goodwin.

The extra spacing confounded Oregon State (8-6, 4-4) and allowed USC to find some rhythm on the perimeter, where it went from hitting three of 14 three-pointers before the half to five for 10 after. It also didn’t seem to affect the Trojans much on the boards, where they finished with 48 rebounds to 30 for Oregon State.

USC won’t play Oregon on Saturday as scheduled because of COVID-19 protocols within the Ducks’ program.

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“Any time you space four guys on the perimeter that can shoot or put the ball on the floor [it] helps,” Enfield said. “If you put enough shooting out there, that’s the goal to go small. You just have to be able to rebound the basketball.”

That wasn’t a problem Thursday, as the Trojans’ work on the glass kept them afloat when their shots weren’t falling. USC still managed to cling to a lead, largely thanks to the 13 offensive rebounds in the game’s first 13 minutes.

It was a telling show of USC’s brawn around the basket. No team in college basketball averages more than 15 offensive boards per game this season. USC finished with 21 on Thursday, underscoring its dangerous presence in the paint. Especially when there’s no one to match up directly with Mobley.

The 7-footer was much more present in that effort Thursday than in the first game against Oregon State, when Mobley often receded on offense. After Enfield challenged him to be more aggressive in the wake of that game, Mobley proved an absolute force on the offensive glass and hard to stop around the basket. He had five dunks Thursday.

After a career-high 25 points against California on Saturday, Mobley scored 14 and added 13 rebounds against the Beavers, giving him his Pac-12-leading seventh double-double of the season. Five of those have come in USC’s last eight games, as the freshman has begun to find his footing against Pac-12 competition.

He wasn’t the only one. USC’s bench scored a season-high 31 points. That scoring was distributed more evenly than usual, but it was the backcourt combination of point guard Ethan Anderson (10 points) and Noah Baumann (11 points) that primarily sparked USC’s offense at various points.

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It didn’t hurt, of course, to have as many second chances as USC was afforded Thursday. But with a critical stretch of their schedule coming up, the Trojans, who trail first-place UCLA (8-1 Pac-12) by one game, know they won’t always get so many chances to overcome their cold shooting.

“Those shots are going to fall for us,” Anderson said. “But we’re hoping to put together a complete game here soon.”