A few feet away and 11 months after the buzzer-beater that broke UCLA’s back, Ethan Anderson, his own back only recently pain-free, caught a chaotic pass at the top of the key with the shot clock running down and no time left to think. So the sophomore point guard let it fly.
Anderson seemed slated for only a bit part in USC’s Saturday night meeting with UCLA, the first on-court edition of the crosstown rivalry since Jonah Mathews sunk his stunning shot to best the Bruins last March. UCLA was down its two best big men, leaving USC’s 7-foot star freshman, Evan Mobley, with perhaps the softest matchup of his college career thus far.
But as Anderson’s desperation heave swished from distance early in the second half, as he knocked down a career high in three-pointers and USC finally put the pedal to the floor, the Trojans wouldn’t need a buzzer-beater or a big game from their superstar big man to defeat the Bruins 66-48.
The backup point guard was quite enough on his own. Now, thanks to Anderson, the Trojans (15-3, 9-2 Pac-12) find themselves tied with UCLA (14-3, 9-2) atop the conference, with 10 wins in their last 11 games.
“Ethan played tremendous basketball tonight on both ends,” USC coach Andy Enfield said. “And he’s still trying to get back to where he was.”
For weeks, after the soreness in his back slowly subsided, Anderson struggled to find his rhythm. Only twice this season had he scored in double figures. In USC’s last outing against Stanford, he didn’t score a point.
For a while, as doctors failed to diagnose the source of his injury, it wasn’t clear whether Anderson would come back at all this season, Enfield said.
But Saturday at Galen Center, he scored a career-high 19 points, finding his confidence in a hurry. While Mobley had a quiet night, finishing with only nine points, Anderson knocked down five of nine from three-point range. And his defense left UCLA floor general Tyger Campbell struggling to initiate the Bruins’ offense. Campbell finished with seven points.
“This was a very big night for me,” Anderson said. “Just in terms of my confidence and my demeanor, this is a big night for me. I hadn’t seen the shots falling that I wanted to.”
The Bruins shot only 33.9% from the field, including three of 19 on three-pointers, and found themselves unable to match the Trojans on either end.
The circumstances didn’t help matters for UCLA. One Bruins big man, Cody Riley, sat on the bench with his right foot in a walking boot. The other, Jalen Hill, wasn’t even in the building because of personal reasons.
That left a little-used reserve averaging less than five minutes per game (Kenneth Nwuba) and a four-star early enrollee who was meant to spend the season in prep school (Mac Etienne) as the last line of defense against a superstar freshman destined for the top of the NBA draft.
But that imbalance wasn’t immediately clear on the court. After scoring USC’s first points on a soft hook underneath, Mobley didn’t score again from the field until past the midway point, as UCLA packed the paint.
It was the best Bruins coach Mick Cronin could do to keep USC from repeatedly feeding its 7-footer in the post. He tried a zone defense to counteract that disparity down low, mobbing Mobley whenever he caught an entry pass.
That look came as a surprise to USC, and for a while Saturday, it worked.
Mobley, however, then settled mostly for setting up his teammates, while adding nine rebounds and four blocks.
“Evan is a team player,” Enfield said. “He played a complete game.”
Once USC’s shots started falling around him, there was little UCLA could do to keep the Trojans on the ropes.
Over two stretches during the first half, the Bruins failed to score for more than five minutes. The second just happened to be when USC caught fire from deep.
“Look, you’re not winning the game scoring 48 points,” Cronin said, bluntly.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.