A three-point bombardment from USC coupled with an onslaught of free throws destroyed Cal as the Trojans nailed 14 three-pointers and hit 22 shots from the charity stripe to bury the Bears 88-56.
The Bears came out aggressive on the defensive end, doubling USC big men Nick Rakocevic and Onyeka Okongwu in the paint while imposing hard fouls that forced the Trojans to the free-throw line. Southern California entered the night shooting 65.5% from the free-throw line, making it the worst free throw shooting team in the Pac-12. Those troubles only continued as they shot 33% from the line in the opening 10 minutes.
That strategy was not without its downsides, however, as center Lars Thiemann was forced to sub out after only 70 seconds of play due to picking up two early fouls, and the Bears as a whole were penalized six times in the opening seven minutes.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears struggled to get their offense going. Facing arguably the best front court in the conference, the blue and gold were denied any presence inside the arc and were forced to shoot from the perimeter. The Bears launched 14 three-pointers in the first half, many of which were wide open, but failed to capitalize on their opportunities with only four made shots.
This was in stark contrast to Cal’s usual offensive strategy, which relies heavily on mid-range jump shots and points in the paint. The inability to shoot from deep and grab offensive rebounds crippled the ability of the Bears to produce buckets. To make matters worse for the blue and gold faithful, Grant Anticevich and Paris Austin, Cal’s go-to secondary scorers outside of Bradley, were black holes on offense as they shot a combined 2 for 17 in the game.
With only 11 Bears points in the first 11 minutes, reigning Pac-12 Player of the Week Matt Bradley put the offense on his back with two consecutive three-pointers. Kareem South followed Bradley’s lead with an open jumpshot that cut USC’s lead to three. Never deterred, the Trojans offense responded with a 19-6 run to close the half on the back of incredible passing and efficient three-point shooting. Southern California shot 6-8 from three and had assists on 10 of their 13 field goals in the first half.
Guards Daniel Utomi and Jonah Mathews were the catalysts of the Trojan offense throughout the night, scoring a combined 36 points on 11/18 from the field including 7/11 from deep. USC’s 41 first-half points were the most any opposing team has scored on the Bears in the opening period since Cal’s matchup against Saint Mary’s in December.
Coming out of the break, the Trojans continued their excellent form, shooting the ball from long-range and imposing their will on defense. After Kareem South hit a layup to bring the score to 34-48, USC went on a 12-2 run sparked by two three-pointers from Elijah Weaver and Quinton Adlesh and a fourth foul on Bradley that sealed any hopes of a second-half comeback. With about nine minutes remaining, Coach Fox waived the white flag, subbed out his veteran starters and let his younger players pick up valuable minutes.
The engine that drove Southern California was their three-point shooting, as the Trojans shot a season-high 60.9% from deep after coming into the game shooting a middling 34.2% from the arc. The Bears by contrast shot just 20% from downtown, a mark that prevented the blue and gold from ever standing a chance against one of the best teams in the Pac-12.
But what ultimately killed the Bears was foul trouble and rebound differential. USC entered the matchup as the best board-grabbing team in the conference and certainly lived up to the hype as the outrebounded Cal 45 to 28. The Trojans also had 33 appearances at the line compared to only 22 for the blue and gold.
This is the fourteenth victory for Southern California and their third in conference play. Their next matchup will pit them against Stanford at home Saturday.
The Bears will leave the Galen Center as they entered it — winless on the road. Their conference record falls to a mediocre 2-2, and their overall record to a subpar 8-9.
The Bears will take on the UCLA Bruins on Sunday at 5 p.m. at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU.