No. 20 USC makes victory at Washington State a little too interesting
All the telltale signs of a smooth road blowout were right there in the box score. USC was shooting the lights out, dominating the glass, playing stifling defense from distance. Tahj Eaddy, the Trojans’ transfer floor general, was on fire. Evan Mobley, the star freshman, was imposing his will in the paint.
But with just over two minutes remaining, No. 20 USC led Washington State by only five with its worst free-throw shooter at the line. All season long, Isaiah Mobley had struggled in these situations. He came into Saturday’s game shooting a paltry 44% on free throws. Now, a chance to hang on to sole possession of the top spot in the Pac-12 rested on the sophomore’s shaky stroke from the stripe.
Mobley didn’t blink. He sank both free throws as the Trojans hung on, emerging unscathed from the Palouse with a 76-65 victory over Washington State.
Highlights from USC’s 76-65 victory at Washington State on Saturday night.
But the fact that USC (17-3 overall, 11-2 Pac-12) even needed two late free throws to secure its sixth straight victory and its 12th win in its last 13 games was another reminder of the thin margin for error the first-place Trojans face for the remainder of February.
If not for those free throws, a game that should’ve been well in hand might have slipped away. USC shot 51% but turned the ball over 16 times, 12 in the first half.
“We were making up ways to turn the ball over,” coach Andy Enfield said. But when the ball was in Mobley’s hands late, Enfield said he had “a good feeling” the sophomore would deliver, after watching him improve lately in practice.
It wasn’t the only pregame inkling that came true for the coach Saturday. Eaddy had lit up the Trojans’ shootaround that morning. So Enfield told assistant coach Chris Capko he thought Eaddy would have a big game.
USC point guard Ethan Anderson missed six weeks because of back pain. Finally recovered, he has helped the Trojans into a first-place tie in the Pac-12.
“I just had a feeling,” Enfield said. “I didn’t expect it to be 29 points.”
The point guard long ago established himself as the catalyst of USC’s perimeter offense. But on Saturday, he really came alive. Eaddy scored 18 in the first half, finishing with 29 on 10-of-16 shooting, one point short of matching his career high.
Eaddy scored from everywhere, conducting a USC offense that was largely uninspiring outside of him and big man Evan Mobley. After Isaiah Mobley made his two free throws, Eaddy added four more to put the game on ice.
“Tahj is spectacular,” Enfield said. “He shot threes. He put the ball on the floor. He pulled up from mid-range. He just controlled the game.”
He shared some of that domination with the freshman 7-footer. Evan Mobley was dominant again defensively, blocking six shots and making life difficult for the Cougars (12-9, 5-9). When Eaddy cooled off at the start of the second half, the freshman took over on the offensive end, scoring eight straight at one point.
But with 4½ minutes left, Washington State guard Aljaz Kunc broke free behind the three-point line, with Mobley the closest defender. Kunc sank the triple and Enfield lit into his star freshman during the ensuing timeout. USC led by just two points.
No. 12 Oklahoma edged No. 14 West Virginia 91-90 in two overtimes Saturday, while No. 19 Creighton defeated No. 5 Villanova 86-70.
“Some years, a game like this might have slipped away,” Enfield said. “But our players defend. I thought after we called that timeout, our defense was outstanding.”
Washington State missed its first two shots out of the timeout as USC clamped down. Then it turned the ball over on four straight possessions.
At that point, one of the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams made six of its last seven from the stripe.
That confidence at critical junctures hasn’t always been a hallmark of the Enfield era. But with Eaddy hot and Mobley unflappable, there are a lot of good feelings about USC going around right now.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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