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.