USC finds its flow state in ship-righting victory over Cal – Orange County Register

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LOS ANGELES — This was a spark that could start a fire, a spark loud enough to ignite a sleepy post-New Years’ crowd at the Galen Center, flying from the fingertips of a racing Isaiah Collier.

Racing Isaiah Collier is redundant, really, because it’s simply what he does. The USC freshman switches gears faster than most players in the country, a truly electric talent; but talent doesn’t help your team win, as head coach Andy Enfield has said, if it’s inefficient talent. And it had been largely inefficient for a month, a teenager still figuring out the collegiate game, that gear-shift stuck somewhere between sport and eco mode as turnovers mounted and drives to the rim stalled.

But in an 82-74 victory over Cal on Wednesday night, on the heels of a five-losses-in-six-games stretch, Collier seemed to find a true balance between power and poise. He spun through the paint like a whirling dervish, kicking passes out to shooters, nary a bad read coming from improved vision. And when he hurtled down the court in the middle of the first half off a turnover, fellow freshman Bronny James creeping alongside him in a two-on-one, he let a pass fly with calculated intentions.

James soared. Caught it. Dunked.

It was an alley-oop that jolted the arena to life, and the kind of play that filled in a crude outline of what this USC team (7-7 overall, 1-2 Pac-12) could be, their two top recruits connecting on some transition magic. After shooting and ball-control issues had tanked the majority of their December and cast a prying eye on Enfield’s offensive system, USC moved in flow and tremendous pace with Collier and senior Boogie Ellis swinging Wednesday, racking up a season-best 29 assists

That flow, in large part, came from transition opportunities off swarming first-half defense. Ellis (15 points, eight rebounds and seven assists) said before the season that USC games would be like a “track meet” – it was the Trojans getting boat raced in December, until they forced the issue against Cal on Wednesday night. Late in the first half, after a James bucket, Collier leaked out for an and-one bully of a finish through contact; seconds later, a James trap forced a turnover that ended in an Ellis dunk. As perfect a 7-0 run as one could mount.

Enfield’s offense shined though, too, in the halfcourt, with USC adhering to frequent movement and off-ball screens into handoffs to get Collier and other perimeter guards going downhill. It seemed to free Collier of self-inflicted mental shackles. He finished with seven assists and no turnovers, and fed shooters like DJ Rodman (a timely 11 points and 3 for 6 from 3-point range) and Harrison Hornery (2 for 3 from behind the arc after a brutal start) for wide-open looks from outside.

The greatest beneficiary of all, though, was Kobe Johnson, who flashed a visible sigh when a 3-pointer dropped early in the second half after starting 0 for 4 from the floor in the first half. His 3-point percentage had dipped to 25% after a weeks-long slump, but he found a long-awaited groove after the halftime buzzer, draining four 3-pointers on a variety of looks.

USC’s perimeter defense slumped in the second half, a variety of Golden Bears shooters draining confoundingly wide-open spot-ups. And the goodwill built through 35 minutes evaporated late, as Cal (4-10, 0-3) broke into an aggressive trap defense that completely slowed USC’s attack, generating a sloppy turnover by Rodman and a finish on the other end to cut USC’s lead to five points with two minutes left. But it was that same improved flow that all but clinched the win, Ellis weaving through traffic with the shot clock winding and finding a rolling Joshua Morgan on the bounce for a slam to extend a lead Cal would never touch.

Johnson finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists for the Trojans, who beat the Bears for the 11th straight time and avoided losing their first three conference games since the 2014 season. Collier had 13 points, and James added 10.

Cal’s Jaylon Tyson led all scorers with 23.

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