USC guard Maurice Jones, center, tries to drive past Morgan State guard… (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / U.S.…)
Morgan State was tougher than USC, physically and mentally. The Bears valued rebounding more than the Trojans and for much of the basketball game Tuesday night at the Galen Center understood how to sneak around, beneath, over and under USC's defense.
But finally, Maurice Jones was able to scoot free for an eight-footer in the lane, the final basket of the night, and USC held off winless Morgan State with a 65-62 victory.
Trojans Coach Kevin O'Neill said he didn't know whether his young team had enough knowledge or experience to recover from an early 31-16 deficit to the Bears (0-4), especially coming off an unseemly 42-36 loss on Saturday to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
"I really wasn't sure, to be honest with you," O'Neill said. "When that happens, especially at home, you never know. Every time we do something, it's a first. We're young. We're as virgin of a team as you can have."
Aaron Fuller, who had 19 points for USC (2-3), called it a "must-win" for the Trojans, who carried a three-game losing streak into the game. He said he was thinking about how bad a loss this could have been "the whole time" against the Bears.
Greg Allen, a junior college transfer in his first season with the Trojans, had a season-high 14 points, including three crucial three-point shots. Allen made nearly 40% of his three-pointers at Navarro College in Texas last year but had played only seven minutes this season and not at all in USC's last two games.
But he played 35 of 40 minutes Tuesday.
"He gave us a huge boost," O'Neill said. "He proved himself tonight."
O'Neill said Allen hadn't been playing in games because he hadn't earned that honor in practice.
Fuller had a one-word answer for what Allen hadn't been doing well in practice until now.
"Defense," Fuller said.
Yet it was USC's uncertain defense that had the Trojans playing from behind.
Morgan State senior Kevin Thompson had 15 points in the first half on six-for-eight shooting. He was scoreless in the second half and took only one shot in the final 20 minutes.
O'Neill said that when USC started playing better post defense it made the difference.
In the second half, when USC made its comeback from a 36-28 halftime deficit, it caused 14 of the Bears' 22 turnovers.
And O'Neill also lamented his team's slow start, what he called "an easing into the game."
"We've got to understand the urgency of playing hard, full throttle, every play," he said. "We've got to come out better."