USC Holds Off Cal, Posts 70-56 Win
By Michelle Smith
LOS ANGELES - Embracing the adage "it's not how you start, it's how you finish," USC rebounded from a dismal opening to the Pac-10 Tournament to finish with a 70-56 win over Cal in Thursday's opening quarterfinal at Staples Center.
The Trojans (19-13), who won the 2009 Pac-10 Tournament, move on to Friday's semifinal against the winner of the game between top-seeded Arizona and No. 9 seed Oregon State.
These two teams had already played a pair of competitive games against one another in the regular season, splitting the series in two games decided by a total of five points.
But the Trojans were able to take control over the final 25 minutes of this third matchup and may be making a case for inclusion in the NCAA bracket.
Things couldn't have gone much worse for for USC to open the game. They were 1 of 11 from the floor with five turnovers early on and Cal built a quick 11-3 lead.
But the Trojans found their offense behind the 3-point shooting of guard Donte Smith and the Pac-10's stingiest team in the regular-season turned up the defensive pressure to thwart the Bears.
"I don't think we have that many guys who have played in a tournament and we didn't handle the start very well, but we kept playing hard defensively," said USC coach Kevin O'Neill. "We played with desperation, I thought. And nothing is more desperate than having three points in 10 minutes."
USC had four players in double figures on a day that star forward Nikola Vucevic got into foul trouble and played limited minutes.
Point guard Maurice Jones finished with a team-high 16 points, while Alex Stepheson and Donte Smith added 14 points each. Stepheson also added 16 rebounds. It was a career-high double-double for Stepheson.
USC is 7-1 with Smith in the starting lineup.
Stepheson said the team knew they would rebound from the slow start.
"We were confident," Stepheson said. "We knew it was going to be OK."
O'Neill joked, "Why didn't you tell me? I didn't know it was going to be OK."
Cal was led by Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Allen Crabbe with 21 points. Fellow freshman Richard Solomon added 11 points and sophomore Brandon Smith added 10.
"We didn't play like we are capable of," said Cal coach Mike Montgomery. "Our inability to score the ball early got to us. We seemed to lose steam because we couldn't get the ball where we wanted to and we turned it over too many times. We weren't up to the task today."
Cal, which finishes at 17-14 after losing four starters from last year's Pac-10 championship team, may well have a good chance at a postseason berth in NIT.