Career-best outings for Derryck Thornton and Nick Rakocevic powered USC basketball past the Cal Bears in a Pac-12 opening victory, 82-73.
Bennie Boatwright hit USC’s first basket of Pac-12 play, launching the Trojans into early control of the contest with a 7-4 lead after five minutes of play.
When Cal wrested the lead away, USC fought back with the help of an intentional foul call and a Boatwright fade away jumper to pull back ahead 15-12 with under 12 remaining.
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Though neither team hit a three-pointer in the opening 10 minutes of play, it started raining threes at the Galen Center before long. Jonah Mathews’ hit from distance was answered almost immediately by one from Cal’s Matt Bradley. Seconds later, Boatwright knocked down his own to put USC up 23-17.
The Trojans built their advantage as large as 11 points, buoyed by the floor management of Derryck Thornton, but the Bears found their stroke from distance to keep the game within single-digits. USC went into the half ahead 37-33.
Nick Rakocevic came up with two quick layups to start the second half as the two teams traded baskets before the Trojans once again outpaced the Bears. It was Rakocevic’s shot which gave USC another double-digit advantage at 49-38, but he also missed the chance to convert back-to-back and-1 opportunities because of missed free throws. Still, his contributions were more than acceptable with 14 of the Trojans first 18 points of the half.
Thornton continued to run the show, adding some scoring to his repertoire with a floater to put USC up 65-50 midway through the second half.
A questionable flagrant foul called against Rakocevic when his arm swiped under an opponents chin started a run for the Bears which cut the lead to single digits once more at 65-56 with seven minutes to play.
By the three-minute mark Cal’s chances were bolstered when Rakocevic was drawn in to foul Justice Sueing beyond the arc. He converted all three free throws to pull the Bears within four points. However, Shaqquan Aaron had a clutch answer, hitting the first three-pointer of the second half for the Trojans to make it 74-67.
Rakocevic helped see out the game with a key rebound and put back in the final minute (though he missed a third and-1 chance) while Aaron and Thornton’s free throws ended it at 82-73.
USC was without freshman Elijah Weaver, who hurt his ankle during the pregame shoot around, leaving the Trojans with just seven scholarship players available thanks to the transfer of Jordan Usher and injuries to Kevin Porter and Charles O’Bannon.
The limited numbers saw Shaqquan Aaron and Boatwright stuck on the bench with foul trouble at times, but electric performances from Thornton and Rakocevic ensured the home team’s advantage.
Thornton posted his first career double-double with 13 points and a career-high 12 assists. He also added seven rebounds and committed no turnovers.
Rakocevic also had a career-high with 27 points on 12-of-14 shooting. He led the Trojans with eight rebounds.
Boatwright had a quieter second half than his headlining teammates, but his first half showing was key to USC taking early control. He finished with 19 points.
Next on tap: USC will take on Stanford at the Galen Center on Sunday, Jan. 6 at 5:00 p.m.