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Trojans' win isn't without baggage

No. 19 USC earns first 2-0 start since 2000-01 season, but suffers some lapses and has difficulty holding leads.

November 19, 2008|Mark Medina | Medina is a Times staff writer

Tim Floyd says he dreads the games scheduled before winter break, knowing his players may already be eagerly anticipating a trip back home.

Floyd hasn't had to deal with that yet. But with USC playing in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament starting Thursday, he warned his team, which has eight new players and three returning starters, not to be preoccupied.

That meant packing up their luggage before the game, and more important, playing with sufficient energy.

The No. 19 Trojans did that at times Tuesday night, but also had trouble sustaining leads. They ultimately held on for a 73-60 victory over New Mexico State at the Galen Center, giving USC its first 2-0 start since the 2000-01 season.

But the Trojans committed 20 turnovers. They also allowed the Aggies to draw to within five points after limiting them to nine-for-35 shooting in the first half, and holding them to one field goal during one four-minute stretch.

"We tried to do too much," said Floyd, the Trojans' coach. "We forgot who we were. The sloppiness is the result of the fact that we're young."

The Trojans, scheduled to leave for Puerto Rico after the game, had their bags packed beforehand. Freshman DeMar DeRozan, who scored only seven points, admitted he hurriedly packed an hour before tipoff.

"You're going to have a couple of games that you'll struggle," DeRozan said. "But I try to look past that."

As much as Floyd wanted to limit distractions, he couldn't ignore the uncertainty of waiting for the NCAA's verdict on Alex Stepheson, who transferred from North Carolina.

The Trojans had hoped Stepheson -- who says he transferred so he could go to school closer to home because of his father's health issues -- would have been cleared to play by the NCAA in time for Tuesday's game.

Stepheson, from North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake High, said USC waited until 3 p.m. before it was determined that he would not be cleared to play Tuesday.

If cleared today, Stepheson would fly tonight with forward Taj Gibson, who needs to take a final exam before leaving.

"I'm trying to think positively, but at the same time I'm not trying to get my hopes up too high," Stepheson said. "If it's a no, it's a letdown. I'm just trying to catch it in stride."

The Trojans handled New Mexico State much the same way, despite the late-game sloppiness. , They got 22 points and 10 rebounds from Gibson, 16 points from guard Dwight Lewis and 10 from guard Daniel Hackett. They scored 40 points in the paint, what Floyd describes as the kind of "cheap baskets" that often dictate the outcome. And they outrebounded the Aggies, 50-35.

"We're trying to encourage guys to keep going and know it's a 40-minute game," Gibson said. "We're just trying to get better."

The Trojans were scheduled to take a 10 p.m. flight Tuesday to New York en route to Puerto Rico. Their performance against New Mexico State gave them something to think about, and work on, for Thursday's game against Seton Hall.

"We have to learn how to play with the lead," Lewis said. "We got some youngsters on the squad that we have to show how to protect the lead."

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mark.medina@latimes.com

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