Isaiah Mobley’s career game helps No. 15 USC hold off Cal, avoid another upset
Isaiah Mobley stood alone at the top of the key, back at the scene of his frustrating, final miss from two nights earlier. The script, to this point, had hit all the familiar notes. The slow start. The furious first-half run. The back-and-forth after halftime. And now, the narrow late lead, with No. 15 USC unable to put away California, and the ball back in its captain’s hands.
This time, Mobley had designs on a different ending. He shouldered the blame in defeat Thursday, after missing a free throw and a last-ditch three-point attempt in the waning seconds against Stanford, and until the final minute of USC’s 79-72 victory Saturday, he’d carried the weight of USC’s offense on his back in a career-high performance, too.
But Cal lingered anyway, keeping it close until that final minute, when Mobley backed down a single Bears defender, determined to exorcise any demons still remaining from the Trojans’ last loss.
As he contorted through the lane, Mobley let a running hook fly. His final, decisive shot a few nights earlier had clanked off the back iron. This one rolled slowly around the rim before handing Mobley the redemption he’d been hoping for.
Isaiah Mobley misses a critical free throw and fails to sink a last-second heave in a 64-61 loss to Stanford at the Galen Center on Thursday night.
“I knew that was hard on him,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “I thought you saw what kind of person and player he was tonight.”
That redemptive arc wasn’t always assured on Saturday. Not as USC fell into the same familiar pattern against Cal that it followed over its last seven games, digging an early hole, only to exhaust itself climbing back out.
Again, the Trojans struggled to defend the three-point arc, as California hit 50% of its shots from deep. Again, they struggled to hit their own three-pointers, managing just four of 17.
USC cut down on turnovers, throwing away just four possessions compared with 14 the other night, and it played better in the paint, scoring 36. But as Mobley took off from the top of the key with one minute remaining, the Trojans led by only three points, still in serious danger of a weekend sweep.
Even Mobley had struggled to start the game, missing each of his first five shots before hitting better than 50% from the field from there. With Mobley slow to start, it was Boogie Ellis who kept USC afloat through an early barrage from Cal, scoring 13 of his 21 total points in the first half. He’d miss just two shots all game, leading the way for a USC backcourt that was otherwise quiet throughout.
UCLA coach Mick Cronin gets his first win over Stanford as the Bruins put on a suffocating defensive showcase in securing their sixth consecutive win.
A determined Mobley would ultimately carry them across the finish line, scoring the final two of his career-high 24 points when it mattered most.
“He’s a great player,” Ellis said. “We knew that’s what he’s capable of.”
USC certainly needed him at his best on Saturday, as it was unable to dispatch the struggling Bears until late. Cal had lost six in a row ahead of Saturday, and none of those six were particularly close, with an average margin of defeat of nearly 15 points.
In the teams’ first meeting of the season, at the start of that slide, USC won by 14. It’s gotten only bleaker for the Bears since, with back-to-back losses of 25 and 24 leading into their return meeting with the Trojans.
The three weeks since hadn’t exactly gone smoothly for USC, either. Since that win over Cal moved the Trojans to 13-0, they’d lost three of seven, largely in the same fashion.
The Bears followed that blueprint early, shooting the lights out from long range, despite Enfield’s efforts to change up his early approach. The coach joked that he opened the game in a zone defense, only to watch Cal immediately score on an easy lay-in.
Even as Mobley delivered a late victory, those slow starts remain a serious concern as USC approaches the most difficult stretch of its schedule.
“We can’t keep coming out like that,” Ellis said. “We just have to come together and start punching teams first. In big games, we’re not going to be able to keep getting punched first.”
Go beyond the scoreboard
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