Basketball: Tahj Eaddy helps USC turn pivotal bounce-back game into blowout

If there was any lingering frustration that USC was given short notice on its opponent for Monday at the start of a three-game week, Tahj Eaddy helped dissipate it quickly. If there was any broader concern as to the Trojans’ trajectory after a tough loss over the weekend, Eaddy erased it emphatically.

One swishing 3-pointer after another.

Eaddy opened the game Monday night with three straight 3s, and heading into the final minute of the first half he had scored one more point himself than Oregon had as a team.

While 21 of his 24 points came in that first half, nothing that happened over the final 20 minutes took any of the spotlight off his latest pivotal performance as the Trojans mostly cruised comfortably to a 72-58 win over the Ducks inside the Galen Center.

Speaking of pivotal, that was the best word to describe this game for USC (19-4, 13-3), which has a half game lead over UCLA atop the Pac-12 standings. The Trojans had a seven-game winning streak snapped Saturday in an 81-72 home loss to Arizona and a second straight defeat with a road games still to play at Colorado and Utah on Thursday and Saturday could have been stunting to the Trojans’ conference championship hopes.

Instead, it was a statement.

“We’re just showing that we’re one of the best teams in the country — that’s really what it’s about,” Eaddy said. “We felt like we let one slip against Arizona. Just 50-50 balls, offensive rebounds, just toughness plays that are very uncharacteristic of us. So we just wanted to let teams know that you can’t bully us, anything like that. We’re just showing that we’re fighters. We’re not going to give in like that, so we’re just trying to keep it rolling.”

For that matter, Eaddy’s performance was a statement in itself.

The grad transfer guard from Santa Clara has morphed into a focal point for this team in a way not many may have expected entering the season. Star freshman Evan Mobley is the headliner and the Pac-12 Player of the Year candidate, but Eaddy has spent much of the last month playing like he believes he’s the leader of this squad — averaging 22 points over the last four games and 18.3 PPG for the month — and it’s exactly how the Trojans have needed him to play.

“I kind of felt like that throughout the whole season, just felt I could use my voice throughout practice, leading by example, things of that nature,” he said. “But you’re probably talking about just my offensive performance over the last few weeks or so, it’s really just been about being more aggressive, understanding that our team, we’re just playing at a higher level when I’m just being more aggressive offensively. Not necessarily to score but to make plays for others and draw attention from the defense and things like that. So I’m just trying to be as aggressive as possible, and I’m just trying to keep it rolling.”

Eaddy was 5 of 7 from 3-point range in the first half (7 of 10 overall) and, as noted, entered the final minute of the first half with 21 points to Oregon’s 20 before the Ducks tacked on a late basket to send the Trojans into halftime up 43-22.

He was asked the obligatory question — when was the last time he started a game like this?

“Last time I started a game like this? What was that, about two weeks ago against Washington State — I think that was the last time,” Eaddy said with a soft chuckle.

Good point — he was 8 of 11 from the field (2 of 3 on 3-pointers) and scored 18 of his game-high 29 points in the first half of that game. But this opening half Monday night might have been even more impressive.

Eaddy got started with a smooth catch-and-shoot 3 from the top of the key on the opening possession, drained an open corner 3 on the next possession and then dribbled into an open 3 and another make from the top of the key on the Trojans’ third offensive opportunity.

Overall, USC would jump out to a 15-0 start. Oregon (14-5, 9-4) missed its first 12 shots and didn’t make a field goal until just over 8 minutes had elapsed.

To say that the Ducks ever had much momentum would be a stretch, but they did string a couple baskets together to cut it to 19-7 before USC point guard Ethan Anderson answered with a big fastbreak 3.

Meanwhile, Eaddy kept making shots — another corner 3, a long step-back jumper, a 3 at the end of the shot clock after having the ball briefly poked away and then another long jumper to push the lead to 41-18.

Eaddy had shot just 3 of 9 from 3-point range in that loss Saturday to Arizona despite scoring 17 points, so as he rebounded in a big way so too did the Trojans.

“Well he didn’t play very well Saturday — defensively especially — and I thought tonight he gave outstanding effort on both sides of the ball,” coach Andy Enfield said. “For him to come out with that intensity, that focus and that shot-making was very impressive. He is a terrific offensive basketball player and he has been so important to our success this year, especially with Ethan Anderson being out six weeks with his injury. Tahj is getting better and better. He’s a lot better player now than he was two months ago, and it’s fun to watch. When he gets on those scoring rolls, he’s hard to stop.”

There was a brief moment in the second half when it looked like Oregon could make a run. The visitors cut their deficit to 10 points a couple times on a 3-pointer by LJ Figueroa and then a layup by Eric Williams with 4:59 left.

But sophomore guard Max Agbonkpolo delivered his biggest shot of the game in response, sinking a 3-pointer from the right side and the game never got that close again.

This was a big one because the Trojans not only moved a half game ahead of UCLA (12-3 in conference) in the Pac-12 standings, but with it looking like the league will have to play an unbalanced scheduled due to COVID-19 disruptions USC also moved a game ahead of Oregon while now holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams.

Enfield hinted at some of the frustration that might have come from the scheduling of this game — USC found out late last week it would play Oregon instead of Stanford — but he also touched on the significance of the win.

“It’s hard to prepare for Oregon in one day, which we had to do, because of their unique style, their matchup zone and full-court pressure, and I thought our players did a terrific job of paying attention to the scouting report and they were very focused and played very hard tonight. Very proud of them the way they responded on short notice,” he said. “The league just told us four days ago that this game was going to happen. We were preparing for Stanford and switched it to Oregon. …

“It was very important tonight to try to win this game just because we only play them once, and to have the tiebreaker over them is important in the league standings. But look, we have four really hard league games left, so although this was a great win and we’re really excited to win this game we can’t rest on our laurels and relax. We have to prepare for the last two weeks of the season.”

NOTES …

While Eaddy was the story of the night, it was also a great sign to see struggling guard Drew Peterson get a boost of confidence from a great all-around performance with 15 points, 11 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals.

He had only scored in double-figures once in the last five games, and the 11 boards matched his season-high. The strong performance came on the night he was moved to the bench with Anderson taking his spot in the lineup.

“He needed to play better … and I thought Drew responded exceptionally well coming off the bench,” Enfield said.

Said Peterson: “Especially coming off the bench woke me up a little bit. I talked with Coach Enfield and obviously I’ve been shooting poor and I lost a little bit of confidence. He just told me to get back at it and I really just came into the game trying to do a little bit of everything. When I’m getting rebounds and assists like that it helps me get my shot to fall and I’m just in a better rhythm out there. So I kind of got back to what I was doing earlier in the season.”

Anderson chipped in 6 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals.

“We challenged him to rebound the ball. Against Arizona, he stood and watched most of the game. Tonight he went for offensive and defensive rebounds. … He was all over the court. That’s what we expect from Ethan — he played like an all-league guard tonight,” Enfield said.

Evan Mobley had a quiet game with 11 points and 5 rebounds on an efficient 5-of-7 shooting, while his brother Isaiah Mobley did not play due to a leg injury.

“He hurt himself in the Arizona game. He has a strained calf muscle — it’s not a tendon or ligament — so he should be back. It’s day to day, but he just didn’t feel 100 percent, was very soar. And when you only have one day, we had to play Saturday and then Monday, his leg didn’t have enough time to heal and we didn’t want to risk any further injury. So he’ll be day-to-day all week and hopefully he’ll be back later [in the week],” Enfield said.

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