USC took a wide detour on the road to sole possession of first place in the Pacific 10 Monday night at the Sports Arena.
The Trojans bumped into determined Stanford, a relentless, pressing team of over-achievers and lost, 60-54, before a small gathering of 3,773.
So just when it seemed that USC was destined to be a factor in the conference race, Stan Morrison's team had an unexpected setback.
The Cardinal came into the game with a 1-5 conference record and still smarting from a 100-71 loss to UCLA Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion.
But Stanford never let USC play its own game, harassing the Trojans with old-fashioned hustle. The Cardinal put the lid on the game by making 14 of 17 free throws in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
Instead of securing first place for themselves, the Trojans dropped into a third-place tie with Washington with 5-2 records. Oregon State is the Pac-10 leader at 5-1 followed by UCLA at 6-2.
UCLA Coach Walt Hazzard scouted USC Monday night in anticipation of Friday night's Sports Arena game between the crosstown rivals. It will be difficult for him to lavish praise on the Trojans. They certainly didn't play like a first-place team against Stanford.
But Stanford has a knack of making teams look bad. The Cardinal slowed the tempo and then picked away at USC's zone defense with precise bounce passes.
Stanford also swarmed all over the Trojans in their backcourt and contested every inbounds pass.
The Cardinal led throughout most of the second half, although the Trojans drew even at 44-44 with 7:13 to play. Stanford then went into delay game for almost three minutes and regained the lead when forward Eric Reveno made a layup with 4:06 remaining.
Stanford led, 48-45, when USC center Clayton Olivier missed a short jump shot. Stanford guard Keith Ramee then converted two free throws and the Trojans never got any closer than four points to the lead thereafter.
USC forward Kevin Steward carried the Trojans in the closing minutes with accurate, medium-range jump shots. But Stanford countered at the free-throw line with John Paye, the football quarterback, doing most of the damage to the Trojans.
Paye was 7 of 10 from the foul line, while coming through under pressure in the final minutes. As a team, Stanford was 28 of 40, while USC was 14 of 20.
It wasn't an artistic game. Grubby would be a better word for it. But Stanford has a way of bringing a team down to its level, especially if the opponent gets rattled as USC did Monday night.
Stanford shot only 37.2% from the field--just about its average in conference games. USC, previously a 48% shooting team, was only 34.5%. The Trojans rushed their shots and seldom had any fast-break opportunities.
"There is no way our team could have played any tougher and hung in there better than we did tonight," Stanford Coach Tom Davis said. "It was just a plain, unadulterated effort. I can understand that it was probably hard for USC to prepare for us after our loss to UCLA, but we did everything we had to do."
USC's offense sputtered and Morrison lost his quarterback when point guard Larry Friend fouled out with 8:31 left in the game.
Wingman Ron Holmes and forward Derrick Dowell fouled out later and center Clayton Oliver was in foul trouble most of the game.
"No, we didn't look past Stanford to UCLA," said Morrison in answer to a question. "Give credit to Stanford. They just kicked our butts. We didn't execute offensively and had no communication defensively.
"I don't know if we had anyone play a good game, while they had a lot of players with good games. It was an important loss for us because we really need to win at home."
Curiously, the Trojans are 3-0 on the road in conference competition and 2-2 at "home," which includes two games at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
"Stanford was on the free-throw line all night long due to our poor defense," Morrison said. "We were reaching and fouling. We looked clumsy and they looked sharp. Their press hurt us a lot. And we continually shot outside instead of getting inside. Down the stretch we got good shots and didn't make them."
USC is 11-5 overall while Stanford is 10-7. If the Trojans can't handle the Cardinal at home, their future seems bleak. Ahead for Morrison's team is the showdown with UCLA followed by a demanding Northwest trip next week and games with Oregon State, Washington and Washington State.
Stanford forward Earl Koberlein led all scorers with 17 points, 14 in the first half. Paye wound up with 13.
USC's leading scorers for the season were well below their averages. Holmes scored only 12 points on 5-of-14 shooting; forward Wayne Carlander got 10 (4 of 12) and Dowell had nine points.
USC led only once in the second half at 35-34 with 13 1/2 minutes to play. The Trojans spent the rest of the evening trying to catch the persistent Cardinal.
Stanford controlled the tempo and the game to its liking in the first half. The Cardinal spread the court, looking for an opening with bounce passes and was penetrating the USC zone often enough to hold a 27-25 lead at halftime.
The Trojans seemed impatient and, when they broke the Cardinal press in the backcourt, they'd rush shots and miss.
As usual, Davis substituted frequently, sending fresh players after the Trojans with an all-out, hustling game.
USC lost Friend in the first six and one half minutes. He ran into the 6-8 245-pound Reveno, who was setting a screen. Friend not only picked up his third foul but also suffered a head injury and didn't return the rest of the half.
The injury wasn't serious, but he remained on the bench because he was in foul trouble.
USC shot only 34.6% in the first half, but Stanford was worse at 32.1%. The Cardinal had an edge in rebunds, 20-19.
Koberlein led all scorers with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting. USC didn't have a player in double figures.