March 10, 2011
LOS ANGELES (AP) - Between Southern California's two hulking low-post stars and its two sub-6-foot guards, the Trojans are nightmare size matchups for any opponent.
No wonder California never found the right fit in the Pac-10 tournament quarterfinals.
Alex Stepheson had 14 points and 16 rebounds down low, 5-foot-7 Maurice Jones scored 16 points, and USC advanced to the semifinals Thursday with a 70-56 victory over Cal.
Donte Smith scored 14 points and Jio Fontan added 12 for the fourth-seeded Trojans (19-13), who overcame a terrible start before surging to an 18-point lead in the second half of their sixth win in seven games. The 5-foot-11 Smith hit four of USC's eight 3-pointers, while Jones scored 11 points in the second half with speed and smarts.
They were bigger on the post, and quicker on the perimeter," Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. "There were some tough matchups. SC was a tough matchup for us each time we played."
While the Trojans peppered Cal with baskets from inside and outside, coach Kevin O'Neill credited defense for USC's advancement. They held Cal under 38 percent shooting in the first half and then forced 15 turnovers while maintaining a double-digit lead throughout the final 15 minutes.
"We are going to guard you, and if we guard, offense will eventually happen for us," O'Neill said. "Our mentality was, we're desperate here, we've got to do something well, and it happened defensively for us."
Pac-10 freshman of the year Allen Crabbe scored 21 points for the fifth-seeded Golden Bears (17-14), whose NCAA tournament hopes almost certainly ended along with their four-game winning streak.
USC will face the winner of top-seeded Arizona's meeting with Oregon State on Friday.
The schools finished tied for fourth place in the Pac-10 standings, but Cal ended the regular season on a better roll, going unbeaten after losing to USC on Feb. 17. The Bears frequently give regular minutes to just six players, but the Trojans also used just six players extensively while thriving despite unimpressive games by Fontan and leading scorer Nikola Vucevic, who combined to make just 6 of 20 shots.
"We run everything through Nik, and when he wasn't getting it done, we went toother guys," Smith said. "We had a chance to pick him up this time."
USC has reached the semifinals in its last four Pac-10 tournaments, but the Trojans missed last season's event under self-imposed sanctions for NCAA violations surrounding former star O.J. Mayo. The Trojans won the 2009 tourney at Staples Center, just one mile up Figueroa Street from their downtown campus.
While USC could make a compelling NCAA case with one more win, Montgomery realizes Cal likely is ticketed for the NIT to close its rebuilding season.
"We've had one heck of a year, given the circumstances," Montgomery said. "If the NIT comes along, we want to jump on that and use that as a springboard. ... I would expect that we would be a very strong candidate."
The Trojans streaked to a 57-39 lead midway through the second half with a 16-8 run led by strong low-post play by Stepheson, who demonstrated what he can accomplish when fully focused.
"Alex has played huge minutes all year, none huger than tonight," O'Neill said. "He anchored our whole team."
Cal pulled within 59-49 with 6½ minutes left on Crabbe's 3-pointer but got no closer.
"Every time we made a run, it seemed like they had something for that," Crabbe said.
USC missed its first six shots and made four turnovers before Fontan hit a 3-pointer for the Trojans' first points 5½ minutes into the first half. Vucevic also picked up two early fouls, but Cal then dropped into its own shooting slump, and the Trojans made a 19-6 run while taking a 35-27 halftime lead on Marcus Simmons' 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We played with a sense of desperation, I thought," O'Neill said. "Nothing is more desperate than to be 10 minutes into a game and have three points."