Ultimately, the story of No. 16 USC’s mountain road trip and its first sweep of the Colorado-Utah swing in four years was the resurgence of the Trojans’ signature stifling defense.
That’s been the identity of this team all season and a dip in defensive performance had led to the Trojans taking their first two losses of the season last week.
With a few practices to emphasize the disciplines the team’s hot start had been built upon, the Trojans returned to form this week with an impressive response, capped by a 79-67 win at Utah on Saturday in which the Utes shot just 36.1 percent from the field.
The defense was the first thing coach Andy Enfield would mention in his postgame comments, but it’s hard not to start here with the play of Drew Peterson.
The versatile 6-foot-9 senior guard scored a season-high 23 points on an incredible 9-of-10 shooting, including draining all five of his 3-pointers to lead the way.
This is very much a USC team with an ensemble cast that takes turns playing the leading role, and on Saturday it was Peterson, who also tallied 7 rebounds and a block and steal while contributing to defensive effort.
“I thought Drew was spectacular. His decision-making was excellent,” Enfield said.
Because of those aforementioned components — a usually reliable, tone-setting defense and not having to rely on any one player to carry the offense each night — USC is now 16-2 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-12.
It’s the program’s best start to a season since 1970-71, when the Trojans finished 24-2.
“Well, I’m not sure this team is as good as Paul Westphal’s team — that was pretty special … 24-2. I think that was the year they didn’t go to the NCAA tournament because only one team from the conference went and they lost to UCLA twice. Yeah, that’s a special team, but I think we have a special team here,” Enfield said. “We’re playing hard. Our defense is much better on this mountain trip. We’re very proud of our guys the way they responded, and to win at Colorado, at Utah in three days is really hard to do.”
Especially when considering the Trojans had been swept on this road trip each of the last three seasons. In fact, this is just USC’s second sweep of the mountain road trip since Utah and Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
This week was about USC reasserting itself after losses at Stanford and home to Oregon during a busy three-game stretch last week.
The Trojans earned a 61-58 win at Colorado on Thursday while holding the Buffaloes to 31.4-percent shooting, and they did more of the same vs. the Utes.
USC entered the day fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to an average of 37.09 percent from the field, so this was indeed a return to form the last two games.
On Saturday, the Trojans used an early 21-3 run to build a 15-point lead with 5:36 left in the first half. That spurt was started by 8 straight points from Boogie Ellis, including back-to-back 3s, and he scored 10 of his 18 points overall during that stretch. Peterson capped it with a 3 for a 29-14 lead.
But Utah (8-12, 1-9) whittled its deficit down to 35-30 entering halftime, as Gabe Madsen hit three 3s and scored 11 of his team-high 20 points over the final 5:03 of the half.
That was one of the few laments for Enfield about his team’s performance.
“This is the way we need to defend the rest of the season,” he’d say afterward. “We have three big games coming up, a lot of games back-to-back. I thought our players played outstanding defense at Colorado for the whole game. Tonight, we lost their 3-point shooters a few times, so other than fouling a couple jump shooters and losing Madsen — he made five 3s on us but a couple were really tough, give him credit … pretty happy with our defensive performance for 40 minutes.”
The USC lead would actually shrink to just 3 points in the opening moments of the second half as Utah got a pair of free throws, but the Trojans quickly reasserted control.
Fittingly, it was a Peterson 3-pointer that sparked the next surge, which would amount to a 21-6 run while building a 56-38 lead. The game was never close again.
USC’s offensive depth really shined during that stretch, which included the Peterson 3, a Max Agbonkpolo layup, a short hook shot from Isaiah Mobley, an Ellis backdoor cut layup on a nice feed from Petersen, a Chevez Goodwin free throw, a scooping layup between two defenders by Peterson (after Utah missed a 3 and two looks around the rim against USC’s stout interior defense), an Ethan Anderson layup, a longer hook shot from Mobley, a 3 from Reese Dixon-Waters and a fastbreak layup from Isaiah White after Joshua Morgan and Dixon-Waters played great defense in the paint on the other end.
Ellis finished with those 18 points, including a perfect 8 of 8 from the foul line, Mobley had 10 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists, and Goodwin chipped in 9 points.
“Boogie and Drew played great games, great floor games, they shared the ball, they made the right play to teammates and then they made shots,” Enfield said. “… [Ellis] took what the defense gave him, he drove the ball. He had some spectacular passes — 4 assists, only 1 turnover late. But I thought he played a really complete floor game. That’s what we expect of him. He’s getting better and better at reading the defense.”
The pieces are indeed there for this to continue to be a very special season for USC, which returns to Galen Center for a three-game home stand starting Monday vs. Arizona State.