Figuring the opponent’s best chance was to bomb away from behind the three-point line, the USC men’s basketball team employed tight perimeter defense and pounded the ball inside at every opportunity for easy layups to build a comfortable halftime lead before settling for a sloppy 80-68 nonconference victory over Eastern Kentucky on Tuesday at Galen Center.
Eastern Kentucky made just three of 17 attempts from beyond the arc (17.6 percent) in the first half while USC outscored the Colonels 22-6 in the paint and won the battle of the boards 26-14 in the first 20 minutes. The Trojans enjoyed a 41-25 at intermission.
Isaiah Mobley led the way with 23 points and 13 rebounds, Drew Peterson added 15, Joshua Morgan had 14 and Max Agbonkpolo had 12 for the Trojans, who prevailed by double-digits despite 18 turnovers.
Morgan’s alley-oop dunk off a perfectly-timed lob pass from Memphis transfer Boogie Ellis ballooned USC’s lead to 18 early in the second half and the margin grew as wide as 24 points with 10 minutes left.
“I had to slide my feet today so I didn’t get any cheap fouls,” said Mobley, who was a career-best five of six from long range. “I was feeling it early, I saw a couple go down and we got on a run. We figured out how to attack their full-court pressure and as time went on we got to our spots to beat the trap and that led to easy dunks.”
USC began the night as one of only 12 unbeaten teams remaining in Division I college basketball this season and were determined to keep their perfect record intact in their first-ever meeting against the Colonels, who were playing their first game in California since a 98-83 loss at Cal State Fullerton in 1999. The Trojans (9-0) are off to their best start since winning their first 14 games to begin the 2016-17 campaign.
While more of the hype in the Southland so far this winter has centered on the Trojans’ crosstown rivals in Westwood, USC is ranked No. 16 in the country in the Associated Press poll. The Trojans resume their three-game homestand Sunday afternoon against Long Beach State. They resume Pac-12 action Dec. 30 when they host Arizona State.
Braxton Beverly led the Colonels (5-5), who had made 13 or more 3-pointers in seven of their first nine games, including a season-high 18 at Western Kentucky on Dec. 4. Three consecutive 3-pointers with under five minutes cut Eastern Kentucky’s deficit to 12 and prompted USC coach Andy Enfield to call timeout. The Colonels crept to within 10 with 1:30 left but got no closer.
Eastern Kentucky ended up 10-of-39 from 3-point range (25.6 percent) and stayed in the game in part by shooting 12-of-12 from the free throw stripe and getting 11 steals. USC ended up out-rebounding the Colonels, 47-32.
“We knew they would give us issues with their 3-point accuracy—and they did,” Enfield said. “They’re very dangerous team, they spread you out, we’re big and long and were chasing their guards. We got four or five charges which is uncharacteristic for us, but on the plus side we 23 assists and three guys had at least three so we shared the ball.