USC basketball coach Andy Enfield said he didn’t really know where to expect this team to be at this point of the season — especially when the one truly known asset on the team, sophomore point guard Ethan Anderson, proceeded to miss eight games with a back injury.
He had reassembled his roster with a heavy influx of transfers, a 5-star 7-foot freshman phenom and some returning players who all needed to get a lot better from where they left off last season. Anderson’s length absence and a three-week COVID-19-induced layoff were yet more challenges to putting all those pieces together.
And yet, Enfield’s Trojans finished off an 85-77 win over Washington State at the Galen Center on Saturday for their sixth straight victory to improve to 11-2 overall and 5-1 in the Pac-12.
“We didn’t know what to expect because none of the players that we relied upon last year were here,” Enfield said afterward. “… Everybody else is brand news, expect Isaiah Mobley, but when Ethan got hurt we didn’t know what to expect because everybody was brand new and we were trying to put a team together and have them have a chemistry between them on the offensive and defensive end and I thought they’ve done a great job. I’m very proud of how they’ve come together as a team, and I think they showed that tonight.”
What the Trojans again showed Saturday night is that they’ve developed some resilience through all the setbacks and obstacles, but that ultimately this is simply a deeper and more talented team than many expected when USC was picked sixth in the Pac-12’s preseason media poll.
To be fair, just as Enfield didn’t know what to expect from a roster of new faces, no one else did either.
But 7-footer Evan Mobley, the 5-star freshman, has been as great as expected, leading the way on both ends most nights. And in the games where he doesn’t take over — like Saturday, when he scored 16 points but was limited in the second half with foul trouble — there are usually others ready to rise to the occasion.
This time it was a few of those transfer additions, as Tahj Eaddy scored a season-high 21 points, Drew Peterson had 15 points and 11 assists and Isaiah White chipped in 13 points, as the the Trojans withstood a late surge from Washington State (9-4, 2-4) to close out the win.
“What’s so cool is we he have such a deep team. Isaiah [Mobley] gets his career high the other night, Isaiah White gets his career high for USC at Arizona, Tahj gets 21 tonight. Anyone can step up at any given moment,” Peterson said. “It just depends on what the defense is giving us, and Tahj and I were able to create and find guys off that late in the game today.”
Evan Mobley drew his fourth foul with a little more than 12 minutes remaining and took a seat on the bench, not to return until there was 6:35 left in the game.
USC had maintained its comfortable lead through that time, though, answering every Cougars surge with one of its own. In fact, the Trojans’ second-half lead had peaked at 73-58 a little before Mobley’s return to the court.
But Washington State rattled off the next 11 points, including jumper and free throw from Noah Williams to make it a 4-point game. Williams later hit a wide opener 3-pointer from the right wing to make it a 4-point game again, 76-72, with 3:14 to go.
USC needed one more strong answer, and it came on cue.
Eaddy used a nice ball fake to clear the defender and knock down a short jumper, Evan Mobley followed a WSU turnover with a shot make in the paint, and after another Cougars turnover the Trojans got three separate looks on the offensive end with White ultimately finishing a layup off an assist from Peterson to make it 82-72 with 52 seconds remaining.
“I thought it was important when they did make a couple of those tough shots we were able to come down and put points up on the other end. If you can’t stop the other team you better score with them,” Enfield said. “”… We finished strong, and this team has finished strong in many games this season. The games we lost we didn’t finish. … The other games we’ve finished very strongly.”
Peterson, meanwhile, had scored 11 of his points in the second half, including 7 during the stretch when Evan Mobley took a seat after his fourth foul, while Eaddy had been the driving force in building an early lead with 14 first-half points on 6-of-9 shooting.
Eaddy, who joined USC this year as a grad transfer from Santa Clara, is second on the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game and has been vital cog as a primary ball-handler with Anderson missing so much of the season.
Peterson, a versatile 6-foot-7 guard who transferred in from Rice, is third on the team with both 11.0 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and leads the Trojans with 47 total assists so far.
“Tahj has played big, big minutes for us. He’s a developing point guard — he’s more of a scorer right now, and we need that. We need our guards to score the ball. Our big guys get so much attention, and Tahj is a tremendous shooter and he’s a very safe player. Meaning he doesn’t turn the ball over a lot, doesn’t make a lot of risky decisions,” Enfield said. “And I think Drew has also stepped up as a playmaker. … We’re getting great production from Tahj and Drew in that playmaking role with Ethan being out for over a month.”
As for why the Trojans let things get so close in the final minutes, Enfield simply credited Washington State guard Isaac Bonton (game-high 27 points) for making things difficult on the hosts.
Nonetheless, USC found a way again, completing a perfect 3-0 week before it plays another three games next week, looking to catch up from the games it lost to COVID-19.
The Trojans presently sit second in the Pac-12 standings behind UCLA (11-2, 7-0) and a half game ahead of Oregon (9-2, 4-1) and Colorado (11-3, 5-2).
“I think that’s a great record for our team, but we have goals to compete at a very high level and it starts next week — it starts Tuesday night in Corvallis,” Enfield said. “We didn’t make goals to have a certain record after 13 games. We’re just taking it game by game right now, but if you look at the season as a whole I think we’re off to a very good start.”
Anderson remained limited in his second game back from that back injury and length absence, playing just 9 minutes off the bench and finishing without a point or assist on 0-for-2 shooting.
Enfield indicated the sophomore point guard could see his role grow next week.
“I think he can start to increase the load. I think he’s pain free,” Enfield said. “… It’s hard when you’re out over a month, you come back and you’re timing’s off, you’re not in game shape and he’s done a good job in his workouts, but we have limited practices. We have three games in five days so it’s not like we’re practicing with contact between these games, so it doesn’t give him an opportunity to get back into full contact two-hours hard practice. It’s basically walkthroughs we do to save their legs because we have six games in 12 days. So that’s why I think next week he should feel more comfortable, probably be in a little better shape and hopefully help us win some games on the road.”
Meanwhile, Eaddy shared his perspective on filling in for Anderson and taking on more point guard duties this season.
“It’s a very natural position for me playing point guard. I’ve been a point guard my whole life. Just throughout college I’ve been off the ball at certain moments because of my ability to score on the perimeter and shoot the ball, but yeah, it was a natural transition,” he said. “Obviously we definitely miss Ethan. He’s a big part of our team. He brings stability and things like that — we definitely need him on the court — but yeah, it was a natural transition for me so I’m just glad I was able to contribute.”