USC's Marcus Johnson tries to knock the ball away from Coppin State's… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
A sign hangs at every stall in the USC locker room, emphasizing the need to "always nurture the soul of our team."
That's been a hard task for a Trojans team playing without several missing parts. But the return of forwards Marcus Johnson and Alex Stepheson in Friday's 74-43 victory over Coppin State at the Galen Center at least provided comfort to a team that hadn't fielded more than an eight-man roster.
Stepheson had missed the first two games because of a left knee injury, but his absence was much longer. He sat out all of last season because of issues involving his transfer from North Carolina. Johnson also missed the first two games, because of issues involving his transfer from Connecticut.
"Just being able to come and play again, it really was a dream come true when I stepped on the court for the first time," said Stepheson, who came off the bench with 13 points and nine rebounds and said his knee was fully healthy.
It didn't appear at first that the chemistry would click.
Coppin State stormed to an 8-0 lead as USC missed its first three shots and committed a turnover.
But after Coach Kevin O'Neill called a timeout, USC (2-1) answered with a 10-0 run and took the lead when Johnson's jumper gave the Trojans a 12-11 edge with 10:58 remaining.
The Eagles (4-2) endured a three-minute stretch late in the first half when they shot 0 for 4 and committed two turnovers.
And after scoring six of Coppin State's first 11 points, guard Lenny Young was scoreless for the final 11:49 of the first half and finished with nine points, well below his 14.8-point average in the first five games.
Responding well after their early struggles, the Trojans shot 61.5% in the first half, building a 40-27 lead.
"It's the first game where we were all playing together," said USC guard Marcus Simmons, who had eight points. "But it seemed like toward the middle of the second half everybody was jelling together. It was exciting to see."
The additions of Stepheson and Johnson also allowed forward Nikola Vucevic to score a team-high 15 points in 28 minutes, after playing 78 minutes in the first two games. He also had 12 rebounds.
"It's two extra bodies," said Johnson, who scored 11 points. "We just want to play hard and we want to win."
The balanced effort paid off, especially with senior guard Dwight Lewis scoring only six points.
Despite the additions, the Trojans are far from having their full roster. They played their first game without forward Kasey Cunningham, who suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee last week. Sophomore forward Leonard Washington and senior guard Mike Gerrity are academically ineligible and aren't expected to return until the beginning of the second semester.
Until then, O'Neill says there are plenty of areas to improve, including defense and shot selection. And with USC meeting Nebraska and Texas in its next two games, O'Neill said the "fun times are over."
"The important thing for us is to learn how to play hard for 40 minutes," he said. "That's something we need to shoot for as we get guys back."