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USC basketball: More on the fourth-seeded Trojans' 70-56 win over fifth-seeded California

March 10, 2011 |  9:37 pm

Usc1_350 My game story from fourth-seeded USC's 70-56 win over fifth-seeded California in Thursday's quarterfinal round of the Pacific Life Pacific 10 Conference Tournament at Staples Center has already been posted.

But since this is the Internet, I am allowed practically infinite room to expound upon any USC basketball-related idea, and I thought I'd use this opportunity to delve into a few factors that keyed USC's decisive win that advances it to Friday's semifinal round against top-seeded Arizona.

The inside game

USC junior forward Nikola Vucevic was saddled with foul trouble, so he didn't factor in much, or at least as much as usual. He only played 27 minutes and scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds.

But it wasn't as if his absence against California was something new for USC.

Remember, Vucevic got hammered in the jaw when these teams met in the Galen Center this season, and he was ineffective in that one, too, scoring only six points in 32 minutes in USC's eventual 68-66 loss.

In this one, here's how Vucevic explained why Cal's defense was so effective:  

"They came and double-teamed me late and I couldn’t do my moves and I didn’t have a lot of space to do my moves," he said. "I was frustrated because I wanted to be on the floor and help my team, but at the end of the day we won and that’s all that matters, so I don’t care what I do."

With him out, the guy who more than stepped up was USC senior forward Alex Stepheson, whom California Coach Mike Montgomery later deemed a "monster" after the 6-foot-10, 250-pound former North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake star scored 14 points and grabbed a career-high tying 16 rebounds.

"Alex has played huge minutes all year, none huger than tonight," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said. "He anchored our whole team tonight at different times offensively and defensively."

USC is 11-1 when Stepheson posts a double-double this season, a trend he was first told about Tuesday afternoon by yours truly. After his game Thursday, Stepehson said, "I just wanted to be aggressive and go get that double-double after being told that."

As for why he's so effective in that role, it harkens back to his aggressive style of rebounding that fires up the team. If you watch him dunk, he looks impressive doing it.

"That's the key for us," senior guard Donte Smith said. "We get all the momentum with them big dunks." 

And Stepheson had three dunks Thursday, which comprised half of his six-for-nine effort from the floor.

"When Al plays big, it’s dominant," Vucevic said. "The way he dominates people, it’s like people get intimidated by him and when he does that. On defense, when he gets a couple big rebounds, I think their guards are scared to go at him in the paint because they know he’s there. He was huge for us. He was definitely a big part of our win today."

The parallel of his offensive play was the defense he, Vucevic and senior guard Marcus Simmons, the Pac-10 defensive player of the year, played against California's talented big-man tandem of Harper Kamp and Markhuri Sanders-Frison.

In the two games against USC earlier this season, Kamp and Sanders-Frison combined to average 35 points and 18 rebounds. Against USC on Thursday, they combine for eight points and 11 rebounds.  

Stepheson said he and Vucevic talked about coming out strong against Kamp and Sanders-Frison "because their two big guys have been playing well against us every time we met up.”

They didn't play well this time. Part of that credit goes to Simmons, who guarded Kamp.

"I was able to front him," Simmons said. "I told him during the game, he's one of the most physical players I've ever guarded."

Montgomery summed up the inside game this way:

"Well, we've talked all along, one of the strength that's we've had all year long has been our low-post game because we have two people that can score. We've had the ability to go to both low-post guys and hurt people. Usually one of the post guys is weak.

"'SC is one of those teams that that's not the case. Their post guys are considerably bigger, and they are pretty physical. So we early on, I thought, we got the ball low. We weren't able to get it in. As the game went forward, we weren't even able to get the ball down low very much."

California's man-to-man defense

Most every team that faces USC plays zone defense because it allows that team to bog down on the Trojans two inside threats, Vucevic and Stepheson, and it also forces USC to shoot from distance, at which only Smith excels. 

But unlike its first two games against USC this season, California came out in a man-to-man defense on Thursday.

"I thought, well, let's start in that [defense] and we'll see if we need to make an adjustment," Montgomery said.

It started well enough. USC looked surprised and fell behind 11-3 and 16-9, but then USC got comfortable, made an 18-4 run and the game was pretty much done from there.

O'Neill's prediction on Smith comes true 

O'Neill said after practice Tuesday that "Donte’s due to have a big game shooting the ball. He had a lot of open shots the other day [against Washington]. His confidence looks like it’s a little bit shaky right now but once he knocks down two threes at Staples on Thursday, hopefully he’ll be right back." 

Smith was Thursday, hitting four of six from beyond the arc to score 14 points. 

Freshman guard Maurice Jones shines in unfamiliar spotlight

You might have expected Smith, Simmons and Stepheson to play somewhat comfortably, or at least without an extreme case of the jitters, in USC's first game of the Pac-10 tournament.

They're seniors, after all. 

Everyone else, though, played a little too on edge at the start.

"We were a little too fired up," Vucevic said. "We were too fired up to play hard. It got us a little bit."

But one guy who wasn't rattled was the 5-foot-7 Jones. He scored 16 points off the bench on six-for-11 shooting from the floor and looked quite comfortable in the Staples Center spotlight.  

"KO told me to take control and be more aggressive and that’s what I tried to do," Jones said.

But perhaps it was just because Jones was comfortable playing against California. The last time he faced the Golden Bears, he scored 22 points, all in the second half, and USC won, 78-75, in Berkeley.

Jones said California didn't really focus on him in their previous two games, for some reason.

"After the first game, I've just been more aggressive and they weren't ready for that," he said.

Fontan, for his part, tried to explain why Jones is able to have success off the bench, which is a new role for him as Jones had started every game since third grade until a few weeks ago.

"When Mo gets in, it helps me out, too," point guard Jio Fontan said, "because of the fact that when myself and Donte are in, they kind of look at me to be the creator and Donte to be the guy spotting up to shoot."

That, Fontan said, allows Jones to slice through the lane or pull up and shoot whenever he wants simply because most teams, such as California, don't see him coming.

Another factor is his ability to distribute the ball. He had only our assists against California, but he seemed to have more, especially because most of Stepheson's 14 points came on passes from Jones.

"He makes it so much easier," Stepheson said. "He’s an excellent penetrator, passer, finisher. When he’s on his game, it just opens everything up for me." 

Jones said he is starting to develop a strong level of communication with Stepheson on the court. 

"Me and Al, we talk about a lot different things that he should do when I come through the lane, where he should slide and things like that," Jones said, "so me and him have kind of been connecting a little bit."

-- Baxter Holmes

Photo: USC guard Donte Smith (14) and forward Alex Stepheson celebrate after a score against California on Thursday. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press