An 8-inch height difference didn’t deter Boogie Ellis. When it looked as though 6-foot-11 California forward Fardaws Aimaq had a simple rebound, the 6-foot-3 Ellis swooped in and ripped the ball away as if instead of being the first play of the second half with an eight-point lead, the Trojans were locked in a tight game in the final minutes.
After the struggles of the last month, every possession mattered.
USC played like a team with purpose Wednesday for the first time in at least a month, avoiding its worst Pac-12 start since 2014 with an 82-74 win over California at Galen Center.
The Trojans (7-7, 1-2 Pac-12) limped back to their home court after a four-game road swing with five losses in their last six games. Their only win during that stretch was against Alabama State. They busted out of their funk by shooting 53.2% from the field, their best percentage since beating Eastern Washington on Nov. 29, and dishing 29 assists on 33 field goals.
After 18 turnovers to just 14 assists in a loss to Oregon State on Dec. 30, rediscovering the offensive flow was a point of emphasis in practice.
“Just tired of watching turnovers and no ball movement, no player movement,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “If you stand there, you’re going to come out of the game. It’s pretty simple.”
Ellis had 15 points, seven assists and eight rebounds, including the offensive board he stole from Aimaq that led to a three-pointer by DJ Rodman on the opening possession of the second quarter. When Cal (4-10, 0-3 Pac-12) cut USC’s 17-point second-half lead to five with two minutes remaining, Ellis settled the Trojans down. The guard slung a perfect bounce pass to a cutting Joshua Morgan late in the shot clock that put USC back up by seven.
Kobe Johnson scored all 14 of his points in the second half, making his first four three-point attempts after halftime. The junior added seven rebounds and five assists while making his first five shots of the second half after shooting 0 for 4 from the field in the first.
Despite missing 11 three-point shots in the first half, the Trojans still pieced together one of their best halves of the season, finishing with a 13-5 run to take a 37-29 lead at halftime. The Trojans had 15 assists on 16 field goals, led by freshman Isaiah Collier’s five first-half assists.
Collier finished with 13 points, seven assists and no turnovers. While the top-ranked recruit for his class has dazzled and turned heads of NBA scouts who have him tabbed as a lottery pick, Enfield emphasized that the 19-year-old is still learning how to play the point guard position at the college level. Collier had five turnovers against Oregon State.
“Making the simple plays,” the freshman said of the biggest adjustment to college. “High school you want that flashy assist or something like that, but it’s just making the simple plays.”
Collier still got the highlight of the night, lobbing a sky-high alley-oop to Bronny James, who flew into the lane and woke up the home crowd with a towering dunk.
James, coming off a career-best 15 points at Oregon State, finished with 10 points and three assists, including a driving layup with 12:27 remaining that pushed USC’s lead to 17.
But the defensive effort that carried the Trojans through the first half faded. Enfied said he was disappointed in the defensive effort after USC built its lead. It’s becoming a pattern for the Trojans. USC allowed Oregon State to shoot 59.6% from the field Saturday, the best clip against USC since 2017. The Trojans are allowing 74.7 points per game, on pace for the most allowed by a USC team since 75.3 in 2013-14.
“The biggest thing is once we build a lead or whatnot, we kind of slack off,” Johnson said. “We kind of don’t do the little details. We don’t box out every possession, we don’t go to get the rebound. … I think that’s something we need to fix ASAP.”
Although the win momentarily righted USC’s season, it extended several streaks of futility for the Bears. Cal has lost 11 consecutive games to USC, 19 straight conference games and 24 straight away from home.