LOS ANGELES – On New Year’s Eve, with an NFL game on the other side of campus and the country’s preseason No. 10 in a bit of a rut, a Pac-12 basketball game at the Galen Center was understandably not the most popular gathering of Los Angelenos, or perhaps even USC fans, on Sunday night.
Thus, it could’ve been an ideal scenario for the Cougars to snare an unlikely win on the road, especially from the 5:43 mark of the first half on. That’s when USC’s high-rising, ball-swatting junior forward Chimezie Metu was disqualified for swinging a closed fist into Carter Skaggs’ groin following a 3-point attempt.
The Trojans, WSU learned over the first 15 minutes, are plenty formidable with Metu on the court. But they also have enough in reserve to get by without him and it was an army of players with similar measurable attributes that overpowered the Cougars, 89-71, in front of a holiday break crowd (2,518) that only filled a quarter of USC’s home venue.
“At times, it looked like every bit as the team that should be a Final Four team, that was picked to be in the top three teams in the nation and for whatever reason, they’ve been out of rhythm,” WSU coach Ernie Kent said. “And I thought they played really tough and really physical. … They took us out of our offense, made things tough for us to score.”
Anticipating USC’s trio of 6-foot-10-or-taller forwards to be in the starting lineup, Kent went about as big as his roster allows him, rolling out 6-9 Arinze Chidom in place of Kwinton Hinson, alongside 6-9 Robert Franks and 6-8 Drick Bernstine, who returned Sunday from a minor knee injury that kept him out of the loss at UCLA.
But USC coach Andy Enfield countered with his version of a “small-ball” lineup and the Trojans jumped out to a 6-1 lead when Chidom’s second foul in two minutes put Elijah Stewart on the foul line.
“They were more worried about us; they went small,” Kent said. “That didn’t work too well. I thought Arinze got lost a bit in their smaller lineup and that’s why we went down a little bit.”
Enfield eventually brought out his lineup of redwood trees – 6-11 Metu, 6-11 Nick Rakocevic and 6-10 Bennie Boatwright (6-7 Jordan Usher came in when Metu was ejected) – and the Trojans countered their 5-of-20 3-point shooting with 58 points in the paint and 12 more at the free-throw line. They distanced themselves from the Cougars with under 12 minutes left in the second half.
It was a series of mental mistakes that once again bugged WSU, and USC’s ability to capitalize – often with highlight dunks or acrobatic plays on the other end.
“They’re very physical, they play with a little dirty chip on their shoulder,” WSU forward Robert Franks said. “But it’s something you’ve got to deal with in a game. … We’ve got to play with tremendous toughness. That would cause a lot of that to be neutral.”
The Cougars trailed 33-19 when Skaggs, unmarked, stepped into a corner 3-pointer. On a late closeout, Metu flew toward the WSU shooter, cocked his left fist back and swung it into Skaggs’ crotch.
“That’s something I’ve never had happen to me before,” Skaggs said. “That kid took a full fist and really tried to take a swing at me. Then, the funny thing is, one of their assistant coaches looked up at me and said, ‘Why are you faking?’”
USC coach Andy Enfield later told reporters “If it’s poor sportsmanship, we’ll address it.”
WSU followed with an 11-0 run to make it 33-30, but Usher meandered into the paint on the next possession and scored before McLaughlin hit a floater to put the Trojans up seven. USC trailed by three or more scores the rest of the way.
“That is a good team,” Kent said. “They’ve got depth, they’ve got shooters, they’ve got athleticism, they’ve got experience.”
Malachi Flynn led the way for WSU with a game-high 21 points and Skaggs, on five 3-pointers, chipped in 18. Six Trojans finished in double figures.