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COLLEGE BASKETBALL : USC 60 WASHINGTON ST. 56

Trojans steer clear of trouble to beat Cougars

January 01, 2011|Baxter Holmes

Car crashes happen in slow motion, or seem to. You can't stop them; you can only hang on or bear witness.

But Kevin O'Neill saw his USC team crashing Friday against Washington State well before it nearly did.

It helped that he had seen the Trojans wreck against the Cougars last season, losing after blowing a double-digit second-half lead.

So when the same situation began unfolding again at the Galen Center before 3,581 witnesses, O'Neill warned his players, "We had these guys like this last year, let's not blow it this year."

It was close, but the Trojans averted a deja vu disaster, staving off a late Cougars rally to win, 60-56, their first Pacific 10 Conference victory.

"We almost blew the lead, but we didn't," O'Neill said.

USC led by 13 with 3 minutes 34 seconds left, but the Cougars then scored eight straight.

Guard Jio Fontan's missed free throw with 1:41 left made the three-point jumper by Washington State's Abe Lodwick with 1:19 left a hero shot that brought the Cougars to within two.

But Lodwick became a goat after turning it over on Washington State's next possession, allowing senior guard Donte Smith to seal the win with two late free throws.

"I just knew I was going to knock them down," said Smith, who scored 14 points.

USC (9-6, 1-1 in conference play) wanted the win doubly bad after losing to Pac-10 favorite Washington in overtime Wednesday.

The players and coaches took that loss hard. They hung their heads in a quiet locker room when it was over.

And at practice Thursday, Smith said, "It looked like a funeral."

But USC looked alive and well, especially on defense, against the Cougars (10-4, 0-2), holding them to 22 points in the first half and 36.7% shooting (22 for 60) overall.

The defense was keyed by Marcus Simmons, a defensive specialist typically given "no help, no cover" assignments.

"Which means he doesn't do anything except guard that guy," O'Neill said.

Klay Thompson, that meant you.

Washington State's star guard came in as the league's top scorer (22.6), but he missed his first six shots. And while he finished with 17 points on six-for-18 shooting, most came on broken plays.

"He just hit some lucky threes," Simmons said after holding Thompson to his first sub-20-point effort in seven games.

Smith said Simmons is strong, fast and has size (6 feet 6, 220 pounds) to go along with aggressiveness and a single-minded commitment to shut down whoever he's guarding.

"I hate seeing him at practice, so I know what those other guys go through," Smith said.

Simmons also had seven points, six rebounds and four assists.

The Trojans struggled against junior forward DeAngelo Casto, who scored 18 points on eight-for-11 shooting.

But his inside play was matched by a pair of double-doubles from USC's 6-foot-10 forwards, Nikola Vucevic (12 points, 11 rebounds) and Alex Stepheson (14 and 10).

Now USC has nine days to prepare for crosstown rival UCLA.

Etc.

Santa Ana Mater Dei guard Katin Reinhardt, a 6-foot-5 junior, attended Friday's game and verbally committed to the Trojans afterward. Reinhardt is considered one of the best junior prospects on the West Coast.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

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USC next

vs. UCLA, Jan. 9 at the Galen Center, 7:30 p.m., Prime Ticket -- The Trojans swept UCLA last season for the first time since the 2003-04 season, but the Bruins feature a potent sophomore combo with guard Tyler Honeycutt and forward Reeves Nelson, who average 14.6 and 15 points per game, respectively. UCLA has won six of its last seven.

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