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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | J.A. ADANDE

Trojans Holding Their Own so Far

March 16, 2001|J.A. ADANDE

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Technically, as the higher-seeded team in this NCAA tournament game, the USC Trojans still have not defeated anyone they were not supposed to beat.

Now let's talk impressions after the sixth-seeded Trojans beat 11th-seeded Oklahoma State, 69-54, in the opening round of the East Regional.

In a game only a select few actually expected them to win, they did so with a superlative first-half effort no one could have predicted.

For a while, the Trojans were on track to post a margin of victory eclipsed only by Duke's 95-52 pounding of Monmouth during a day that was marked by close games around the country.

But they followed up their 48-point first half with their lowest-scoring half of the season, 21, in the second. So they're not ready to be mentioned in the same breath as Duke just yet.

However, the Trojans could be in the same regional final as Duke with a couple of more performances like this one.

The Trojans were far more impressive than their second-round opponent, Boston College, which simply kept shooting three-pointers and finally got enough of them to go in to beat feisty Southern Utah.

And Kentucky did not look very imposing in its 72-68 victory over Holy Cross.

"They might be the best team we've played," Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton said. "Or at least as good as the top teams in the [Big 12] conference."

USC played a first half that was so outstanding even Coach Henry Bibby had to like it--and he's the type of guy who could have a bad time at Mardi Gras.

"It is the best half of basketball since I took the job at USC," Bibby said.

The Trojans smoked the Cowboys with 53% shooting in the half. They outhustled Oklahoma State at both ends of the court. They had seven steals and three blocked shots. Sam Clancy was handling business inside, and Jeff Trepagnier was flying to the hoop.

Brian Scalabrine flipped a no-look, over-the-head pass to a cutting Trepagnier for a dunk on a play so sweet the USC assistant coaches had to give each other five on it.

The Trojans led by 29 at halftime.

Where has this combination of effort and execution been throughout the season? Were the Trojans saving it for March?

"You could say something like that," Clancy said. "I think it was an emotional game. We came out and we put our nervousness on the court. We played with a passion. Tonight, there was no stopping us. I feel like, if we play like that, we can beat anyone in the country."

It's a pretty big country, you know. If we narrow it down, the Trojans definitely looked capable of beating any of the three remaining NCAA teams on Long Island. And at the moment, that's all that matters.

They're not out of the tournament like another No. 6, Wisconsin. Or fifth-seeded Ohio State and fourth-seeded Indiana, for that matter--Big Ten teams all.

With their tipoff after 10 p.m. local time, they had ample opportunity to watch almost every upset and close call throughout the day.

"I think that's why we came out so hard," said point guard Brandon Granville, who had 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. "We know every game in the tournament can be a one-point, two-point game, no matter who you're playing."

In this case, the Trojans were playing an Oklahoma State team that was a sentimental favorite because of the tragedy it endured when a plane carrying two players and six associates of the team crashed Jan. 27.

As much mental resilience as the Cowboys have shown in holding their season together and making the tournament, some of the physical side effects of their ordeal had to come into play. They spent so much time in counseling and then making up classwork that they have had limited practice opportunities. Their shrunken roster was reduced by one shortly before the tournament, when Sutton kicked Jason Keep off the team. That left them with only nine players, not even enough for a five-on-five scrimmage in practice.

And to top it off, they had problems getting a charter plane to New York and didn't arrive until late Wednesday afternoon, leaving only enough time for a light workout.

At Oklahoma State they have learned to grade hardships on acurve, and in the grand scheme of things their latest bit of plane trouble wasn't very traumatic.

You wonder if the hardest part is yet to come for Oklahoma State. In the weeks after the plane crash, at least the Cowboys had basketball to keep them busy and together.

Now they'll have more idle time, less time around one another and perhaps more opportunity to let the grief sink in.

The good news for the Cowboys: They have all of their players coming back next season.

USC's future is Saturday. For the first time since 1992, the Trojans will play in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

If the first 20 minutes of Thursday night's game are solid evidence, they have a good chance to win a second game for the first time since 1954.

A few good minutes in March can erase years of bad memories--and especially a season of unfulfilled expectations.

*

J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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