Reporting from Lawrence, Kan. — At halftime against No. 3 Kansas here Saturday, USC was staring at a double-digit deficit with Allen Fieldhouse rocking as usual.
A shameful exit, as is custom for most of Kansas' visitors, seemed certain. After all, points aside, USC also trailed Kansas in talent, skill and athleticism.
But midway through the second half, the Trojans used an 11-0 run to take the lead after trailing by 11 at the half, turning a potential blowout into a nail-biting thriller, which USC eventually lost, 70-68.
How? It was an inside job, USC's biggest strength that, for whatever reason, it often doesn't use.
"We wanted to go inside early, and we didn't," USC Coach Kevin O'Neill said.
It was 6-foot-10 forwards Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic that stepped up.
Stepheson explained USC's second-half offensive game plan as follows: "We went inside, waiting on the double team, and if the double team didn't come, me and Nik would take our man one-on-one or look for the open man."
Like robots, the two worked patiently and in unison, taking what the defense offered and then countering. Stepheson had 14 second-half points and Vucevic added eight.
And when Kansas' defense collapsed, the two found open shooters, often senior Donte Smith, who made four of six three-point shots and scored 17 points after halftime.
USC outscored Kansas, 48-39, in the second half, but because of that first-half hole, it wasn't enough.
"If we had played the whole game like we did the second half, the outcome might be different," freshman guard Maurice Jones said.
Though the game goes to the loss column, Vucevic said USC proved plenty.
"We showed people that we can play against anybody," he said. "People now know where we are and who we are."
Smith stays hot
During practice last week, Smith, who was coming off a career-high 22 points in USC's win against Northern Arizona on Nov. 11, couldn't miss.
"Lucky," Vucevic said after Smith buried a deep three-pointer in his face.
"'Luck?'" O'Neill asked. "Well, all that 'luck' won us the game the other night."
Against Kansas, Smith's "lucky" streak continued as he hit five more three-point jumpers.
In his last two games, he has shot 10 for 16 (63%) from distance.
Why the hot hand?
"To be honest with you, it feels like I'm back in junior college, just playing basketball again," Smith said.
The 5-foot-11 guard played one season at Mt. San Antonio College, averaging 21.7 points per game while shooting nearly 50% from beyond the arc.